An International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) official warns American Shipper that the maritime industry’s ongoing crew change crisis is “only going to get worse.”

ICS explained that COVID-19 travel restrictions, as well as the growing list of countries banning crew changes for vessels that have called at one of the Indian subcontinent ports in the past 14 days, are the primary reasons behind this lingering crisis. 

“There are 200,000 seafarers currently experiencing issues with crew change, primarily because of government-imposed travel restrictions,” said Guy Platten, secretary general of ICS.  “This is a repeat of the seafarer crisis we saw during the early days of the pandemic when 400,000 seafarers were impacted. These men and women deserve to go home.”

The fast spread of the B16172 variant (India origin) is one of the reasons for these travel restrictions. The World Health Organization and the United Kingdom both elevated their warning on the variant last week. UK experts say the variant is spreading 60% faster than the B117 and almost 30% of sequenced cases in England are the Indian origin variant. 

According to ICS, almost 240,000 seafarers are of Indian nationality, making up 14% of the 1.7 million global seafarer workforce. 

“For example, Maersk has said 30% of their workforce are of Indian origin,” stressed Platten. “This crisis unfortunately is just the beginning for ship managers. This is only going to get worse.”

SONAR Insight

To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, click here.

A new crew change survey called the Neptune Declaration Crew Change Indicator noted that, as of May 2021, 5.8% of seafarers are beyond the expiry of their contracts and 0.4% have been on board for over 11 months.      

This survey represents major ship managers who collectively are responsible for more than 90,000 seafarers. 

In addition to travel restrictions and bans contributing to the lack of crew changes, the indicator referenced the growing number of seafarers testing positive for COVID-19 at the time of pre-joining due to the lack of vaccine access.

The other reason is fear. Some seafarers from countries experiencing a growing number of COVID-19 cases have indicated a reluctance to join vessels for fear of not being available to help family members who might get infected while they are at sea.

“This is why we need seafarers vaccinated and the deployment of vaccines to all developing nations,” urged Platten. “We have seen shots in the arms of longshoremen to help boost productivity at the ports as more are coming back to work. This is why it is so important to move forward with our Seafarer Vaccination Roadmap, which outlines clear steps for how countries around the world can quickly and effectively create seafarer vaccine hubs in their ports.”

Presently, 16 states in the U.S. have begun vaccination for non-native crew delivering goods in their ports. On Tuesday, Federal Maritime Commissioner Louis Sola sent a letter to President Biden urging the release of surplus Covid 19 vaccines so maritime workers and port communities throughout the Caribbean and Central America can be vaccinated.

In June, the Netherlands will launch a vaccination program for all seafarers, regardless of nationality, operating under the Dutch flag. ICS tells American Shipper that other European countries are set to follow suit in the coming weeks and months due to successful vaccination programs for their own population.

“Seafarers are a unique population with their own requirements for international travel,” stressed Platten. “To protect the health of seafarers, passengers and the general public, and to minimize disruptions to trade and global supply chains, vaccination of seafarers is essential.”

ICS is among several industry bodies and seafarer charities that recently launched the Seafarer International Relief Fund (SIRF) to raise $1 million for seafarers (it raised $300,000 in its first week) and their families in times of crisis. 

The fund was founded to directly respond to the tragic second wave of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping across India and now East Asia but will also be used to respond to the needs of seafarers in other countries as new outbreaks occur and with new needs arising globally. 

It takes people to move trade. Drayage and port productivity are leading indicators of the severity of the pandemic.

A source who works for OL-Dubai in India told American Shipper, “Oxygen tanks are lying at ports awaiting customs clearance. Some of the states have started local lockdowns but there is no countrywide lockdown yet. This action must be done by Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi. The port is open and logistics is functioning, however the factories are closed. That means logistics requirements are low and there are no export supplies going out.”

Port data collected by Marine Traffic supports the commentary. The time of vessels at the ports of India is creeping up.

“Excluding a big spike at port between March 15-21, the average time at anchorage this year for container ships at Indian ports has been just over half a day,” explained Fotini Tseroni, content writer for MarineTraffic. “It has been steady at 1 to 1.5 days at the port. That number has now crept up to 1.6 days, as the pandemic takes a tighter grip over India.”

In contrast, the number of vessels arriving at Indian ports is down.