Day of the Seafarer - the bunker angle
24th June 2011 20:45 GMT

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has made June 25 the first ever international Day of the Seafarer - to celebrate and to pay tribute to the world’s 1.5 million seafarers.

It is in recognition of "the unique, and all-too-often overlooked, contribution they make to the well-being of all of us," says the IMO.  How true.

We need seafarers to operate the vessels that carry more than 90% of world trade that we all rely on to live in comfort, or make a living in export-oriented industries.

Ships also need fuel, or bunkers, to sustain this world trade - so that is one common trait between seafarers and bunker fuel.

Sadly, there is another.  

Most bunker fuel consumed today is heavy fuel oil (HFO) where the main component is a residue from the refining process - often referred to as the "bottom of the barrel" and the cheapest fuel available. Seafarers, for their part, often appear to be at the "bottom of the food chain" in the shipping industry.  They have the lowest pay, and when money becomes tight, they are the last to get paid, if at all.

We hear example of this when ships have been arrested for unpaid bills, including bunker bills.  While various creditors with a claim on a ship wrestle over the assets, the ship's crew, or seafarers, are often stuck onboard in port far from home with no money.  Sometimes they have not been paid for weeks, even months, before the ship was arrested.

We hear little about seafarers in the bunker industry, and when they appear in the Bunkerworld news files, it is rarely good news.  But there have been some good stories too, where local communities have rallied support and donated money, food or other goods to improve the lives of seafarers unlucky enough to find themselves stuck in a port on a debt-ridden ship with no means.  We have even had an example of this inspired by an article on Bunkerworld.  A local bunkering company in the UAE arranged for food to be delivered to a VLCC after reading on Bunkerworld about the sufferings of the crew.  The tanker belonged to a company that had filed for bankruptcy, and it was running low on everything, including fuel to keep the vessel's internal power systems running.  The crew said they had limited water and power and were suffering in the heat of the Gulf summer.  All they wanted was to be sent home, and at least have decent living conditions onboard while waiting.  It is not right that seafarers should have to rely of the kindness of strangers in situations like these.

Environmental regulations will drive a move away from bunker fuels being nothing but "the bottom of the barrel" to replace them with cleaner fuels, or technology to clean up their emissions.  As shipping thereby becomes more expensive and sophisticated, there will be a need for seafarers to keep pace with developments.  That will not happen unless they are properly rewarded and moved up from the "bottom of the food chain" in the industry they serve.

Seafarers face perils such as rough seas and piracy attacks, from which they have disappointingly little protection, while at the same time facing responsibility and criminalisation for pollution incidents.  More than one master has been thrown in jail for accidental oil or bunker spills caused by conditions and a chain of events over which they had no control.  

While it is not a problem on the same scale as the above, seafarers face health and safety perils related to bunker fuels too.  From time to time, poor quality fuels cause severe operational problems, and in the worst cases, engine blackouts.  Imagine how scary that would be in pirate infested waters, rough seas, while sailing close to shore or in a busy shipping lane.  The thought of that has led to a campaign by some parties at the IMO, in particular INTERTANKO and Norway, to introduce better control of bunker fuel quality prior to delivery to ship.  Such incidents might be rare, but should we wait for an accident to happen to demonstrate the risk to the safety of ship and crew?  Competent seafarers can cope with problematic fuels, if they know what they are dealing with, but there can be no acceptance for chemical contamination that goes beyond problematic to becoming downright dangerous.

There is another element of bunker fuel that can pose a risk to seafarers: the possibility that it contains toxic hydrogen sulphide (H2S).  There has been an attempt at addressing it in the latest revision of ISO 8217, the international marine fuel quality standard, by setting a 2 parts per million (ppm) limit for H2S in bunker fuels.  Unfortunately, that limit is not enough to guarantee that - under some circumstances - unsafe levels of H2S vapour may form in areas where seafarers go about their business.  H2S has also been intensely debated at the IMO, but so far, no further measures have been agreed because of little evidence that H2S in bunkers poses a significant risk to those who work on ships.  Many parties have voiced their opinions on the issue, but where is the voice of today's seafarers?  

Seafarers, sooner or later, come ashore and many continue to work within the maritime sector.  Some of the best people in the bunker industry have spent time working on ships, in particular those with experience from the engine room.  Whether buying or selling bunkers, they bring with them unique insights which serve them, and the bunker industry well.  

Let us hope that new generations of seafarers will be properly trained, properly treated and properly paid to help ships safely navigate the seas, and that they can look forward to a rewarding career ashore when life on the high seas no longer appeals.

Bunkerworld would like to join the IMO to mark the Day of the Seafarer, and invite our readers as well to say: Thank you, seafarers.

Unni Einemo,
24th June 2011 20:45 GMT

Comments on this Blog
Roger Harris - International Committee On Seafarers' Welfare (ICSW)
4th July 2011
At International Committee on Seafarers’ Welfare we completely agree with Unni’s hopes for better treatment, working conditions and training for the next generation of seafarers. But we also want to improve the lives of those already working as seafarers and work closely with companies, unions, governments, welfare organisations and ports and run programmes to establish welfare facilities around the world.

Part of our work is to celebrate the progress already made and we have just launched the 2011 International Seafarers’ Welfare Awards. As well as recognising those that already provide exceptional service we hope that by raising awareness of best practice we encourage others to improve existing or establishment new services and facilities.

We’re asking seafarers to nominate the ships, ports and seafarer centres that have contributed to their health and wellbeing this year. There’s also a special award for Welfare Personality of the Year. We hope to get as many people in the industry as possible behind the awards so if you’re interested in finding out more do visit

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