Improving domestic ferry safety is a subject to which government has given much attention. For two consecutive years during the past administration, the Philippines was host to international meetings on domestic ferry safety.
The mantra “Safety at sea at all times” could be heard from the highest maritime officials down to the officers carrying out technical functions such as ship inspection and audit. With government declaring that safety at sea is the concern of all who undertake to operate ships, from the crew to shore-based personnel and management was indeed re-assuring.
In realizing its maritime safety mantra, government, through the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA), adopted a policy to implement the International Safety Management Code, 1994 (ISM Code) in domestic shipping. The ISM Code was made mandatory for all ships engaged in international voyages with the amendment of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), 1974, which incorporated Chapter IX on the Management for the Safe Operation of Ships. The Code aims to provide an international standard for the safe management and operation of ships and for pollution prevention.
The ISM Code enhances the safety awareness not only of those involved in navigation (ship’s crew) but also the shipowners and shore-based personnel. It introduces a system that defines a shipowner’s responsibility in managing and operating ships at the same time reiterates the Master’s overriding authority and responsibility to make decisions with respect to safety and pollution prevention.
Memorandum Circular No. 143 issued in June 1999 mandated the implementation of the ISM Code in domestic shipping for high-speed crafts, passenger-carrying ships, tankers and bulk carriers albeit limited to those required to be classed. This MC was supplemented by Memorandum Circular No. 159 on the Adoption of the National Safety Management Code (NSM) in the Domestic Shipping, which was issued by MARINA in November 2000. MC No. 159 expanded the application of MC No. 43 to cover ships that were excluded by the latter, i.e. non-classed ships.
The issuance of MC Nos. 143 and 159 was cited by the Philippines in many multilateral meetings and fora as a way by which to improve the safety record of the country’s domestic shipping. The NSM Code was seen as a feasible tool in bringing together shipowners and management, shore-based shipping personnel and crew in ensuring safety in ship operations.
By way of recall, the NSM Code adopted under MC 159 was at that time, considered as a watered-down ISM Code as some of the covered IMO conventions under the ISM Code have not been ratified by the Philippines; therefore, only national regulations which implement maritime safety and pollution prevention in domestic shipping could be covered by the safety management system (SMS). In addition there was the continuing opposition by stakeholders who expressed concern on the burden and difficulties in complying with the international standards imposed by the ISM Code.
In November 2015, MARINA repealed Memorandum Circular Nos. 143 and 159 through the issuance of MC No. 2015-11 which effectively rescinded the NSM Code implementation; instead, the ISM Code was instituted as the basis for the development of SMS in domestic shipping. Accordingly, the imposition of the ISM Code from 2015 that sets as standards those imposed by IMO conventions brought about higher expectations on the safety of ships in domestic voyages. The presumption is of course in the affirmative that ships operating in Philippine waters are compliant with the requirements of the ISM Code.
The recent maritime incidents should therefore prod government, specifically MARINA, to review how the SMS in each of these cases worked. The roll-on/roll-off MV Starlight Atlantic and the cargo ship MV Virigina I should be both covered by the ISM Code and therefore must have in place an SMS. In the case of the ro/ro vessel, the SMS must have provided guidance to the Master and crew on how to proceed given the events that transpired prior to the mishap. In an archipelago often visited by typhoon, well-planned response to foreseeable risks during inclement weather is anticipated, such being an element of the SMS.
The recent sea mishaps have somehow diminished the confidence in the fervent commitment of improving the safety record of domestic shipping. It is incumbent on government and the shipowners/management and crews to reverse that perception and possibly draw a more effective implementation plan for the ISM Code. Lessons learned in these cases should assess how and why the SMS failed.