When future historians review what we now call “modern times”, they will report that humankind felt safest and most relaxed in the 1990s, but, just as we all basked in the warm afterglow of the end to the Cold War, 9/11 occurred.

The devastating terrorist attacks on New York and Washington at the start of the millennium introduced a new, less-innocent, age in which the enemy was often virtually impossible to identify. The killing of a large number of innocent civilians in such circumstances prompted some decisive reactions. Whether or not we agree with the retaliatory measures that were taken and the speed at which they were implemented, they impact us all and look set to do so for some considerable time.

As the terrorist threat is a global one, ocean commerce was immediately identified as a possible access route for the delivery of not only nuclear, biological and otherwise hazardous weapons but also the people wielding them.

As an initial measure the International Maritime Organization (IMO) prepared the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS Code) in record time. It was adopted only 15 months after the infamous hijack of the airliners.

A comprehensive set of measures to enhance the security of ships and port facilities, the ISPS Code takes the approach that ensuring such security is a risk management activity. An assessment of the risks must be made in each particular case to determine what security measures are appropriate.

Through the tacit acceptance protocol, IMO member nations quickly found themselves in agreement with and implementing the new instrument. Leading ship classification societies lost no time in introducing the provisions of the ISPS Code into their marine management system certification services, some within two years of 9/11.

Ports in general have had more of a struggle than ships in absorbing the new regime due, not least, to regional variations and the fact that they are not governed by a harmonised international regulatory regime as ships are. It was found, for example, that Asian ports had less of a security culture in place than their counterparts in Europe and the US. For them, the fear of losing business in western markets proved to be more of a driver for implementation of the ISPS Code than security concerns.

Although ports where security has traditionally not been a priority issue were willing to make the necessary ISPS Code commitments, several struggled to meet the costs of the necessary security officers, enforcement staff and physical features such as lighting, CCTV monitoring and fencing. In its own early assessments the Brazilian government, for instance, put the cost of implementing the new regime for all its ports at USD 1.3 billion.

The financial implications of compliance with the new global security requirements have been exacerbated by US priorities. Not surprisingly, the US has been more sensitive to the security issue than any other nation, and amongst the unilateral mandates it has proposed are the requirement that all US inbound cargo containers be scanned at the point of departure and that a universal transportation worker identification card (TWIC) be issued to all relevant personnel. The electronic readers needed to verify card holders would be required at all facilities handling high passenger volumes or certain types of hazardous cargo.

The US has wrestled for several years with the practicalities of implementing such ambitious controls and the goals of 100% container scanning and TWIC are yet to be achieved. When the requirements were drawn up, the technologies needed to ensure successful implementation did not exist. Although great strides have been made by equipment suppliers in the design of viable systems, the government does not believe they are as yet up to the necessary standard.

In recent weeks the proposed entry-into-force date for the federal provision mandating the scanning of all US-bound seaborne cargo for radiological and nuclear threats was put back for another two years. At the same time the country’s Department of Homeland Security stated that its own ability to fully comply with the mandate, even in the longer term, is questionable. It went on to point out that the scheme is hugely expensive and, in its judgement, not the best use of taxpayer resources to meet the country's port and homeland security needs.

Many studies have been carried out into the scale and pace of ISPS Code implementation worldwide. The consensus view is that ship owners, remarkably, achieved a good level of compliance in a short period of time at the outset, without fully appreciating what the consequences of the new regime would be over the longer term.

Following the honeymoon period of the early implementation phase, it was discovered that there were grey areas, where the Code’s provisions overlap with, and sometimes compromise, safety measures laid down in other conventions such as the ISM Code and STCW 95. Such shortcomings arise primarily because completion of the paperwork inherent in complying with the ISPS Code on a continuous basis can make it virtually impossible to simultaneously meet the separate standards laid down for manning, working hours and rest periods.

It was also found that many of the provisions in the original Code were either open to interpretation or based on erroneous assumptions. In reassessing the Code, the maritime community agreed that the main function of the instrument is not to make the seafarer work harder by burdening him with yet another layer of paperwork, manuals and directives.

Instead, the new provisions need to be simple, straightforward and backed by a training regime that minimises the risk of misinterpretation amongst seafarers, port workers and port state control enforcement officers alike. Also, the rules need to align with and complement existing safety standards. Such a streamlined regime could also assist in the battle against the theft and pilferage that is endemic in many ports.

Operators of container ships are quick to point out that the misdeclaration of goods in containers is a much more real problem to them than the threat that the odd box may be carrying some barely detectable material that could be used for making bombs. The container shipping industry’s Cargo Information Notification System (CNIS) database of container incidents, which was established in 2011, has already highlighted a number of trends and reinforced some existing safety concerns.

There are approximately 130 million TEU of container movements each year and the vast majority move without incident. However, when an accident does occur on a container ship, it can have devastating consequences. The fires and explosions involving containerised freight on Aconcagua, CMA Djakarta, Hanjin Pennsylvania and Hyundai Fortune, for example, each resulted in damages exceeding USD 75 million. Both the Hanjin Pennsylvania and CMA Djakarta incidents involved at least one crew fatality.

An analysis of container incidents in recent years has shown that over 20% involved cargo misdeclarations. Many shippers of dangerous goods are tempted to misdeclare their consignments in order to avoid the extra paperwork and surcharges required. All four incidents described above, which took place between 1998 and 2006, involved misdeclared dangerous goods.

Misdeclarations can also involve understating the weight of the container and its contents. Although the degree to which excess weight is responsible for incidents involving ships and road and terminal vehicles is hotly debated, most investigations into the collapse of container ship stows and the loss overboard of boxes reveal container weight misdeclarations to have been a key determining factor.

Although the contribution of overweight containers to the structural failure of MSC Napoli’s hull, and the vessel’s subsequent beaching on the UK’s south coast in January 2007, was never definitively proven, it was shown that the container ship was carrying a considerable number of such “under declarations”.

Ship owner associations have been pressing IMO to make it a condition for stowing a loaded container on board a ship that the ship and the port facility have, in addition to a shipper’s declared weight, a verified actual weight of the container. The May 2014 decision by the Organization’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) to make this measure mandatory marked the success of the initiative. The necessary change to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention is due to enter into force in July 2016.

This cause would undoubtedly be supported by a shift of technological emphasis over the next two years. Instead of spending time on the questionable goal of scanning the full contents of a container, the expertise would be better focused on the less onerous but more beneficial task of determining the true weight of the box. Progress in minimising dangerous goods declarations might be a useful spinoff of such a redirection of talent.

Author: Mike Corkhill, a technical journalist and consultant specialising in oil, gas and chemical transport, including tanker shipping and chemical logistics. A qualified Naval Architect, he has written books on LNG, LPG, chemical and product tankers and is currently the Editor of LNG World Shipping.

Source: BIMCO