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  October 2nd, 2023 | Written by

Maritime Challenges – Fires, Economic Uncertainty, and “Dark” Tanker Fleets 

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While shipping losses were at a record low in 2022, cargo and hull fires, economic uncertainty, and “dark” tanker fleets are safety challenges on the horizon for the maritime sector. Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS) is a corporate insurance carrier providing risk consultancy and insurance solutions worldwide. The company’s annual Safety & Shipping Review looks at loss trends and risks for the maritime sector and the 2023 version is officially out. 

The most notable headline of the report is the continued decline in shipping losses. Thirty years ago it was common for 200-plus vessels to go missing every year. It has been six years since triple-digit losses have been registered and last year there were fewer than 40. The “loss hotspot,” however, continues to be South China, Indonesia, Indochina, and the Philippines. Congested ports, extreme weather, and older fleets are the primary loss culprits. 

While losses are down, cargo and hull fires are a growing concern. Decarbonization efforts have introduced new types of cargo. Battery-powered goods featuring lithium-ion (Li-ion) are highly flammable and represent a concerning risk for carriers. Electric vehicle (EV) sales are increasing and the overall battery market is expected to grow by 30% annually between now and 2035. 

Decarbonization has also led to larger vessels and carriers seeking greater efficiencies. While larger vessels may prove more efficient, higher container cargo exposure and accumulation have led to more fires. Li-ion battery fires are additionally very difficult to extinguish. An AGCS analysis concluded that fire is the most expensive cause of loss – eating up approximately 18% of the value of the total claims. 

“Dark” tanker fleets, also known as “shadow” or “ghost” fleets, are unregistered tankers that slip through regulatory controls. Oil sanctions, as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have resulted in Russia and some of its allies to implement dark tanker fleets to transport and sell Russian oil. Energy embargos are difficult to enforce, and according to Tanker Trackers, of the 900 ultra-large tankers at the global level, roughly one-fifth were breaking sanctions with Venezuela, Iran, and Russia. An uninsured dark tanker exploded in Southeast Asia in May killing crew. Tanker explosions result not only in loss of life but also environmentally toxic oil spills.   

Finally, the report is especially concerned with economic uncertainty. The sector is suffering from lower demand and depressed freight rates where shipping a container between Asia and the US in April 2023 costs roughly 80% less than at the same time in 2022. Commodity prices are up as are labor costs, and the price of steel is crippling manufacturing budgets. Between 2020 and 2022 some estimates point to an 18% + increase in ship repair costs alone. 

Inflated prices have been baked into the present figures based on the global inflation figure of 8.8% in 2022. The inflation outlook still remains uncertain adding to some very real challenges over the remaining four months of 2023.