In the Suez Canal, a sideways-turned ship led to a $10 billion traffic jam. In the Port of LA, a Covid-induced bottleneck of dozens of cargo ships has left consumers waiting weeks for products that used to arrive in days. Across the globe, pandemic lockdowns have stranded more than 400,000 mariners at sea, according to the United Nations.
The past six months have thrown an unusual amount of attention on an otherwise invisible workforce. Even though 80 percent of the world’s goods travel by sea, news stories about the 1.6 million merchant marines who make that happen is rare.
But the bigger crisis in the maritime industry that long preceded the pandemic is the abandonment of cargo, ships and seafarers, which occurs routinely and often with impunity despite heavy commercial costs, environmental harm, and human toll.
In the Port of Beirut, a blast last August caused by thousands of tons of highly volatile ammonium nitrate left dockside killed more than 190 people and highlighted the public safety risks and the brazen negligence of ship owners who often discard and walk away from their responsibilities. Refusing to answer urgent calls from the crew or port authorities, the ship’s owner, a Russian man named Igor Grechushkin, was soon confronted with heavy fines, including roughly $100,000 in back wages and port fees. In response, Grechushkin did what many shipowners do. He cut his losses, declared bankruptcy, and quietly disappeared, abandoning his workers, the dilapidated ship, and its deadly cargo.
Maritime analysts are pointing to a possible next disaster elsewhere in the Middle East. The FSO Safer, a tanker off the coast of Yemen formerly used as a floating oil storage facility, was abandoned after its Yemeni owner sustaining the ship stopped operation due to the war. Located in one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, this floating bomb is located miles offshore, but it’s explosion could cause massive environmental damage and impede marine traffic traveling through the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb strait, and the Suez Canal.
Aside from the public safety threat, the stranding of cargo also often creates environmental catastrophes. Last July, in Mauritius, a Japanese cargo vessel ran aground after changing its usual shipping course, spilling more than 1,000 tons of oil into the ocean before the ship split in two. The environmental clean-up was left to a developing nation, least equipped to afford its cost.
But, no one shoulders the neglect within the maritime industry more than the shipping crews themselves. On any given day, before the pandemic, there were tens of thousands of maritime workers stranded at sea. The backstory is typically the same. Having stretched their resources to the limit, cash-strapped shipowners declare bankruptcy. Cutting their losses, they disavow their ships, stranding crew members who are usually still on board the ship far off at sea or anchored in a foreign port. Like the Flying Dutchman, these men are left to roam or sit and wait sometimes for years. Usually, they lack the immigration papers to come ashore and the resources to get home. Annually, there are thousands of these men globally languishing at sea, slowly falling apart, physically and mentally. Some of these men die, while trying to swim to shore.
COVID-19 has made an already perilous line of work that much more dangerous.
“We have numerous cases where seafarers were denied to go ashore for normal medical treatment, for highly inflamed teeth, broken bones, and strokes,” said Dr. Max Johns, Chief Representative of the Shipowners at the ILO, adding that several other seamen have died. “I am deeply worried.”
In 2020, hundreds of mariners from Kiribati were stranded in Germany, Denmark, Australia, Egypt, Brazil and Indonesia after their government closed its borders due to coronavirus. On Easter Sunday, after months of waiting, a first group of 150 men boarded a flight home from Nadi to Kiribati. Upon arrival, however, they were ushered into a small subsect of the country’s Marine Training Center for a 14-day quarantine. Here the men said that the poorly-ventilated tight space was filled with scraps of garbage and had only eight toilets and five showers.
Just eight days after arrival, one of these seamen, Karotu Aata, reported sudden abdominal pain. Police arrived at the scene, but refused to enter the quarantine facility leaving Aata in the medical care of another crew member, according to witnesses. Soon after, Aata died.
The fate of these men raised a larger question. How can such a pervasive problem get so little public attention? One answer is that wage theft and strandings at sea are crimes of neglect. And no matter how intentional and cruelly calculated, this abuse represents a passive form of harm that, on its face, seems less violent. Stories about these subtler forms of abuse tend to whisper rather than scream, and where an audience looks for a clear villain, they find ghostly indifference instead. The consequences typically unfold in slow motion and at a distance. Unfortunately, the old reporter’s adage “If it bleeds, it leads” is true. So too is its inverse: The more pervasive and less dramatic a tragedy, the less it seems a tragedy, or even a story worth telling.
Lax rules and a maritime bureaucracy is designed more to protect anonymity and secrecy of ship owners than to enable oversight and accountability of the industry. The increasing issue of castaway crew as well as jettisoned cargo and ships is largely a result of the out-of-sight, out-of-mind nature of this workforce. Over the past 7 years, I’ve seen first-hand what this sort of crime of negligence can do, while reporting from shipping and merchant vessels around the world. Sometimes in journalism, one finds that the most urgent stories hide in plain view. The truest examples of seafarers being detained at sea were all around me, but only after I stopped looking for them did I take notice.
I kept running into these battered souls while reporting other topics. In Athens, Greece, while exploring how ships are stolen by maritime repo men and corrupt port officials, I came across the crew of the Sofia—ten desperate Filipinos, marooned on an asphalt tanker, anchored half a dozen miles from shore, and unpaid for over five months.
While in the Gulf of Oman on a floating arms depot called the Seapol One, where private maritime security guards wait in international waters between deployments on ships, I heard from six guards whose employer had stopped taking their calls. Their ship had grown rancid and overrun with vermin. At one point, they lifted their shirts, revealing bright red rashes of infected bedbug bites.
The ITF and the International Labour Organization, a UN agency, currently track cases of seafarer abandonment globally, but their estimates are only a fraction of the real problem since most captains and crews tend to avoid alerting international authorities when they find themselves in this predicament. Therefore, there needs to be better tracking and blacklisting of perpetrator companies and owners.
The unfortunate truth is that in much of the maritime world the law protects a ship’s cargo better than its crew. In 2017, partly motivated by bad press and union pressure, the shipping industry came together in an unprecedented fashion and tried to better handle the problem of stranded seafarers. The industry imposed a new rule requiring ship owners to carry insurance to cover the costs of sailors marooned in port.
However, the smaller vessels that were most likely to strand mariners were not, under this new rule, the ones required to carry such insurance, said Paul Burt, the recently retired Regional Director of Mission from Seafarers.
Ian Urbina is an investigative reporter and the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on reporting about environmental and human rights crimes at sea.