Statistics show that major oil accidents in the world’s seas and, above all, the amount of oil spilled into the sea have decreased year by year. This information is of course gratifying, but what is the situation in the Baltic Sea?
Figure 1. The amount of oil spilled into the sea in oil accidents 1970-2022. Source: ITOPF, 2023.
Traffic volumes in the Baltic Sea have increased enormously in recent decades, especially as a result of Russian oil exports, but tanker accidents in international waters have remained under control.
At the same time, however, Helcom’s statistics (HELCOM, Shipping accidents in the Baltic Sea 2020) show that the number of all reported accidents has actually increased in recent decades, and so that the majority of reported accidents occur in Sweden and Germany upon arrival at port.
Are the waters of Sweden and Germany particularly dangerous?
When looking for a reason, special attention should be paid to the word reported accidents. Our western neighbor is a pioneer in accident reporting and also in maritime safety culture. Because only by identifying problems, reporting them internally and externally, can the safety problems be found and solutions developed. Particularly important is the so-called near-miss situational analysis, and development of measures based on them.
A lot of work has been done in shipping to create such a culture that accidents and near misses are reported.
A significant reason for the sinking of M/S Estonia was that there had been several similar bow visor breakages in the Baltic Sea, but they were not reported. If they would have been reported, this might have led to the situation that more attention would have been paid to the problems with Estonia’s bow visor and the bow visor would have been repaired in time, and the accident would not have happened.
Figure 2. Maritime safety
VTS, which monitors all maritime traffic as a cooperation between several countries, also has a large share in reducing accidents in the Baltic Sea. In Finland, Fintraffic’s maritime traffic control center prevented a total of 20 different vessel traffic accidents in 2021 and recorded more than 810 other vessel traffic deviations or malfunctions. Nine of these were prevention of groundings.
In 2010, we conducted a study (Kuronen, Tapaninen 2010: Views of Finnish Maritime Experts on The Effectiveness of Maritime Safety Policy Instruments), to see which factors maritime experts see as important in reducing accidents.
The companies’ own active security development was seen as the most important, and the impact of fairways and port fees was the least important. On the other hand, it was felt that the best way to improve maritime safety in the future is by improving sea charts, fairways and ship structures. There is no silver bullet to reduce maritime traffic accidents. The most important thing is the attitude, i.e. the fact that maritime safety is at the top of the priority list of everyone working in shipping companies.
Russian Shadow Fleet
Unfortunately, however, a new security threat has appeared in the Baltic Sea this year. Russia’s oil exports have by no means ended due to international sanctions, but the target countries have changed. Oil used to be transported in large quantities to Finland and other parts of Europe, but now Russian oil goes to China and India, among others.
Longer sea voyages mean that more tanker fleet is needed, demand increases and prices for tankers rise. It remains to be seen whether this will lead to the fact that at the same time more and more poorly maintained tanker fleet is in traffic.
In addition, the industrialized countries have set a price ceiling for Russian oil, below which tankers are not allowed to transport cheaper oil and insurance companies insure. In response to this transportation of Russian oil, the so-called the shadow fleet, i.e. an increasing proportion of the world’s tanker owners are unknown. Fortunately, however, we can state that the price of Russian crude oil is so low that the Russians have also been able to use Greek oil tankers with valid insurance.
Do these vessels with unknown owners pose a security threat?
Currently, the ships plying the Baltic Sea are in relatively good condition and their average age is not a concern. However, I cannot assess what will happen as the war drags on, how much and with what kind of fleet Russian oil will be transported in the future and whether it will pose a security threat to us.
Containers lost at sea
Finally, a few words must be said about the containers at sea, which the mysteriously sinking sailboats blame for their misfortune.
According to statistics, in the year 2021, the world’s international liner traffic transported approximately 241 million containers. The World Shipping Council (WSC) says that 1,629 containers fell into the sea in 2021, i.e. containers lost at sea represent less than a thousandth of 1 percent (0.001%) of all transported containers. It is of course possible to run into such a thing, but not very likely. I myself have not yet met a seafarer who would have said that he saw a floating container on the ocean.
This article was published in Navigator magazine (in Finnish) 21.2.2023.