A Student Perspective: Shipping Policy, who should drive it?

Before addressing the issue at bar, a definition of shipping policy under consideration here would be in order. It is an established fact within the transport world that shipping is conducted through a variety of channels: notably– by air, road, rail and sea. However, the shipment in focus here refers to that which is undertaken by sea and regulated by policies affecting sea-borne trade. This means basically those policies affecting the shipping business relative to vessel safety whether in port or on the high seas, including crew wellbeing and the marine environment.

The definition above presupposes that there are many stakeholders (cutting across the political, environmental and security spheres) affected by shipping policies. Hence, shipping policies formulation should take their concerns into consideration. While there are many stakeholders (as in governments cum regulators, ship-owners, ship-builders, Seafarers, etc), they are divided into two broad categories here for the purposes of drawing out the issues under consideration. These are: governments as in regulatory bodies or IMO on the one hand, and ship-owners as in industry on the other.

With these clarifications, I now my turn attention to the issue of who should drive shipping policy? Should it be the ship-owner or the regulatory authority? Should it be the regulatory authority, there are constant accusations from ship-owners that regulators are insensitive to the needs of industry and only keep adding unnecessary burden on ship-owners. If ship-owners, they are accused of putting profits above the wellbeing of the crew and care of the environment, and therefore cannot be left alone. This is at the core of the debate. As a way of general statement, there is no simple solution, neither is one better than the other!

From my perspective, I am in full concurrence that shipping policy-formulation should be participatory and should involve key stakeholders and interest groups. However, inasmuch as implementation is expected to be sustained and succeed, regulators should drive the process. The reason being, ship-owners, no matter how well intentioned their management practices are, would naturally pursue their bottom-line (i.e. profits) above rigid rules when such situations arise. There are myriads of instances within the shipping world that support this viewpoint. For example: findings in the BP Gulf of Mexico rig explosion in 2010 finally boiled down to the neglect of safety standards by company operatives; moreover, the perennial poor treatment of seafarers by some ship-owners, thereby given rise to MLC 2006, which came into force August 2013, supports this argument.

In closing therefore, I hold the view that regulators should drive shipping policy. However, this should be in consultation with industry-players as they are the implementers of any resultant policies. Industry would do well in advancing their goals by being proactive in their management policies and practices that put vessel safety and crew wellbeing at the top of their priorities. By so doing, shipping policies would not be mostly reactive and imposed by governments, but proactive and thereby prevent the formulation of regulations that are less sensitive to industry concerns.

After all, the ultimate goal of shipping policies, no matter who determines its formulation or drives its implementation, is to keep seaborne trade safe and secure: thereby making it attractive to those desiring to make living out of it.

Harry Conway, MA International Maritime Policy Student