The Gulf Livestock 1 tragedy almost three weeks ago is refocusing attention on livestock ship safety and more specifically whether “converted” vessels carry greater risks than purpose-built livestock carriers.
A formal investigation into the circumstances that led to the capsizing and sinking of the Gulf Livestock 1 during a typhoon in the East China Sea in the early hours of September 2 is currently underway, led by the vessel’s flag State, Panama, with the assistance of NZ’s Transport Accident Investigation Commission.
Only three members have so far been located from the 43 person crew which was on board the Gulf Livestock 1, along with nearly 6000 dairy heifers, when it was reported to have lost engine power in a typhoon before it capsized and sank.
One of the three crewman was pulled unconscious from the water and was later pronounced dead upon arrival to hospital. The two surviving crew members were due to return home to the Philippines on the weekend.
No other signs of life have been found. Friends and family say text messages from those on board showed the captain had told the crew to prepare the large 45-seat lifeboat prior to the ship capsizing. With no wreckage of the craft having yet been found, they believe it is possible the crew made it onto the raft and may still be alive.
The Japanese coastguard is reported to have found many carcases of dead cattle. Meanwhile Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is reported to have assured Australian PM Scott Morrison the search for the ship will continue.
In the weeks since the tragedy, media reports have drawn attention to past disasters involving livestock carriers, including the Queen Hind which sank with 14,000 sheep near Romania in November 2019 with all 22 crew members rescued; the Haidar which capsized at a port in Brazil on October 2015 while loaded with 5000 cattle; and the Danny FII which foundered in the Mediterranean Sea in December 2009 causing the loss of many crew members, including experienced Australian stockman Gary Beckett, and more than 20,000 sheep and cattle.
Global insurer Allianz reports that on average 95 large ships (those with a Gross Tonnage of 100t or more) are lost worldwide every year.
Foundering (sinking) is the most frequent cause of loss of all vessels, accounting for three in four during 2019, with fire, machinery damage, collisions and strandings accounting for other losses, according to Allianz’ 2020 safety and shipping review.
Of the tens of thousands of large merchant vessels operating around the world, about 150 are livestock carriers, according to shipping statistics provider Equasis, as reported by Splash.com. The data suggested the average age of all livestock vessels operating globally is 37 years of age, with the oldest being the Kalymnian Express, launched in 1964 (now 56 years of age).
Australian standards most stringent in world
Australian standards for livestock carriers are considered the most stringent in the world.
Beef Central’s own research indicates that about 32 livestock vessels are currently accredited to carry livestock from Australia.
To operate out of Australia livestock vessels require an Australian Certificate for the Carriage of Livestock (ACCL) which must be renewed by AMSA every 12 months.
Several other livestock carriers still operating globally have been AMSA accredited in the past but have not been in Australian waters for over a year, and would require re-accreditation by AMSA to load Australian livestock.
A number of those older vessels would now be unlikely to meet new the new requirements for ventilation that were introduced in Australia earlier this year.
Compared to the global average age of livestock vessels of 37 years, the average age of the 32 vessels operating operate out of Australia is around 19 years.
Of those 32 ships, 17 are purpose-built livestock carriers (with an average age of 13 years), and 15 were initially built for a different purpose such as carrying cargo, containers or cars and were converted at a later time into livestock vessels (these vessels have an average age of 28 years).
The Gulf Livestock 1 started its trading life as a containership in 2002 before being converted into a livestock carrier 10 years later. Along with its sister ship the Jawan, it has been a regular visitor to Australian ports in recent years.
Attention focuses on vessel types
While official investigations into the tragedy are yet to be completed, the disaster has focused significant media attention on the poor prior safety record of the Gulf Livestock 1, including reports that the vessel had 25 port state control deficiencies listed against it in 2019 and 2020 alone, several of which related to main engine and/or stability issues. In May last year the Australian Maritime Safety Authority ordered the Gulf Livestock 1 be detained for a week in Broome while stability and navigation issues were resolved.
Attention is also being drawn to the safety of livestock vessels that were not originally designed for the specific purpose of carrying livestock.
Last week for example shipping news website Splash, in an article titled “Are livestock carriers synonymous with disaster”, wrote that converted vessels do not always have hull shapes conducive to the new purpose and can have greater difficulties maintaining vertical centre of gravity (VCG) of the cargo in the form of thousands of animals.
In response to the Gulf Livestock 1 disaster, New Zealand has suspended all livestock exports from the country and is currently reviewing the safety of the trade, with the review to consider risk profiles of specific vessels, among other issues, according to the terms of reference.
AMSA: Every ship in Australia must meet stringent standards
An Australian Maritime Safety Authority spokesperson told Beef Central that every ship accredited to operate from Australia, including converted livestock vessels, could only gain accreditation by passing a rigorous safety inspection process.
In response to our questions, an AMSA spokesperson said all merchant ships, including converted and purpose built livestock carriers, must comply with the internationally enforced “Safety of Life at Sea Convention”, or SOLAS as it is universally known.
SOLAS sets out the minimum safety standards for the construction, equipment and operation of merchant ships.
It is enforced by flag (country of ship registration) and port (country of arrival) state control authorities.
“Here in Australia, AMSA has a rigorous and internationally reputed flag and port state control inspection regime,” the AMSA spokesperson said.
“Any ship found to have a serious breach of SOLAS is not permitted to depart an Australian port until the issue has been resolved.”
The spokesperson said a ship’s conversion history did not exempt it from the requirement to meet the relevant critical minimum safety standards outlined under SOLAS to ensure the safety of the ship and its seafarers.
“Live export ships are also subject to additional standards outlined under Australian legislation – Marine Order 43 (Cargo and cargo handling – livestock) which outlines the structural and mechanical requirements for the carriage of animals at sea to ensure the safe operation of the ship.”
Purpose built versus converted vessels
A number of Australian exporting companies say they will only use only modern, purpose-built livestock vessels, which they see as providing a higher level of safety and animal welfare assurance over and above minimum regulatory standards.
In discussions with some of these stakeholders in recent weeks, points raised in support of using purpose-built vessels over conversions included:
– Layout: A purpose built vessel starts with the provision of livestock services at its core, with the hull and sea-going behaviour designed for that specific use. Converting a vessel can involve compromise as livestock trade specific elements are fitted into an existing hull built for another purpose.
– Investment time-frame: A purpose-built ship can be created from the outset with a 25 to 20 year time frame in mind to write it off and to provide a return on investment for the owner. A vessel with an older hull converted into a livestock vessel will have a shorter time-frame for the return on investment to be calculated across, which may also constrain the conversion budget.
– Open/closed decks: Closed deck designs can be seen both on purpose-built and converted vessels, although the majority of converted vessels tend to have a number of open decks. Many of the newer generation of purpose-built vessels fully-enclosed decks. Reasons given for this include that hold airflows can be accurately modelled to ensure sufficient cross-deck ventilation and air changes; ventilation is not negatively impacted by the prevailing wind direction or force; livestock decks remain dry even during rain or showers, and it prevents sea spray or waves during rough weather from entering the cargo spaces.
As mentioned earlier some Australian exporting companies have actively sought to differentiate their businesses as leaders on animal welfare and safety grounds by using only modern, purpose-built vessels as opposed to conversions.
While the strategy is in keeping with meeting public expectations around animal welfare, some exporters have pointed out that it can also put them at a disadvantage in the commercial market, as the higher cost of using such vessels can make it harder to compete for cattle on price, as Beef Central wrote in this 2018 article.
Focus remains on search, investigation
For the time being, the focus remains on the search for survivors, and the wait for the formal investigation to hopefully reveal more answers.
An AMSA spokesperson said it remains the responsibility of the relevant flag and port State authorities to investigate the incident, and it would be inappropriate to speculate on the cause of the incident until such time as the review is completed.
“Our thoughts are with the families, friends and colleagues of the missing crew,” the AMSA spokesperson said.