The year 2020: equal to none

Martin Dorsman, Secretary General of ECSA

The COVID-19 pandemic made 2020 a year no one will forget. With so many victims, a devastating impact on the world economy with severe impacts on the daily lives of many people, the toll of the pandemic is extremely high.

The shipping industry also had to face the impacts, with an immediate drop to zero of revenue from passenger transport and cruises. Other segments saw a drop in cargo volumes, but throughout the year the economy in many countries bounced back quite remarkably, supported by aggressive government and central bank support policies having a positive effect on trade.

The position of seafarers however remained very problematic throughout the year. Due to all kind of travel restrictions, lack of international and domestic flights, quarantine requirements etc. many hundreds of thousand seafarers were stuck on board their vessels and the same number was stuck at home unable to travel to their ships for a crew change. Despite a slight improvement over the year the topic of crew change and its impact on the well-being of the seafarers and the safety of navigation remains an immense challenge.


At European level the European Commission worked extremely hard to keep the borders open between the EU Member States to accommodate the necessary transport of goods and people. Numerous communications and guidelines were published by the European Commission, also on entry into the EU. Designating maritime workers as key workers that should not be confronted with travel restrictions by EU Member States, was key to ensure the continuity of trade flows by sea. ECSA commends the European Commission for this hard and excellent work and now calls upon the Commission and EU Member States to priorities seafarers for vaccination. With 76% of EU’s external trade and 32% of EU’s internal trade by sea, the vaccination of seafarers is a key priority for a full recovery of the EU from this pandemic.

Another topic affecting shipping and the safety and well-being of seafarers is migration, with many people crossing the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Europe. Merchant vessels rescuing people in distress at sea need to have the guarantee that they can disembark them in a prompt and predictable way. The case with the Maersk Etienne, having 27 people on board for almost 40 days, showed this is not the case. Following the publication of the Pact on Migration of the European Commission, which did not deal with merchant vessels rescuing people at sea, ECSA started an intensive lobby campaign at the highest political level. Due to the extremely difficult political situation of this file, no concrete improvements could be realised yet.


Piracy in especially the Gulf of Guinea was another key priority. ECSA had an intensive dialogue with the Commission services on possible actions of the EU, in addition to the already ongoing capacity building efforts. The launch of the ‘Combined Maritime Presence’ concept, a new concept for the EU, needs more follow-up to become an effective tool in combating piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

The European Shipping Week 2020, held just three weeks before the lock down started, had numerous events on the decarbonisation of the shipping industry. The panel discussion on this topic during the main conference day, with a key note speech of the Head of Cabinet of Vice-President Frans Timmermans, showed the commitment of the industry to deliver on the goal to decarbonise.


More specifically, ECSA develop the so-called ‘Framework Conditions’ to be able to discuss with the Commission Services the Green Deal proposal to include shipping in the EU ETS. An important goal for ECSA is that any EU system can be aligned with a future IMO system on Market Based Measures and that the position of small and medium sized companies is duly taken into account.

ECSA, working closely together with its social partner ETF, launched the WESS project to increase the number of women working in the shipping industry. Increasing the diversity and inclusivity is important as it contributes to the competitiveness and attractiveness of the shipping industry.

Finally, ECSA welcomed the very last minute agreement on the future trade and cooperation agreement between the EU and the UK. While the new trading relationship will entail big changes relative to the arrangements during the transition year 2020, the agreement maintains the trade fluidity as far as possible and a level playing field.

Collaboration through adversity

Guy Platten, Secretary General ICS

The events of 2020 and the impact COVID-19 has had on all aspects of our daily lives will long be remembered. For the global shipping industry, it has caused significant upheaval to the way we work and taken so much of our time and energy, not least the crew change crisis.

ICS has been at the vanguard of addressing the ongoing crew change crisis from the outset of the pandemic and has brought together a wide range of maritime stakeholders to collaboratively find ways to address immediate operational challenges and reduce the impact of travel bans imposed by governments. A suite of guidance has also been produced by ICS to help shipping companies navigate the myriad issues that the pandemic has posed.

A major aspect of ICS’ work has been to lobby governments and the UN to declare seafarers as keyworkers and prioritise them for vaccinations. We even managed to encourage the British governments to host a ministerial level summit. We have seen our efforts bear fruit with the International Labour Organization (ILO) ruling in December 2020 that governments have breached seafarers’ rights and failed to comply with the Maritime Labour Convention amid the pandemic. It called for states to recognise seafarers as keyworkers and to date only 58 have done so thus far. Encouragingly we have seen the figure of 400,000 seafarers impacted by the crew change crisis fall to around 200,000 but there are concerns this will rise as we see governments react to second waves like that currently underway in India.

Number of seafarers impacted by the crew change crisis

The ILO has also called for the prioritisation of crew for vaccinations. US states and European countries, including the Netherlands, are now beginning to roll out vaccination programmes for national and international seafarers calling at their ports and it is hoped more countries that are ahead in their own national vaccination programmes will follow suit. This is a vital step to ensure that seafarers, the lifeblood of our industry, are protected and can continue to deliver global trade without travel bans hindering their work. To aid in this ICS, along with other major maritime NGOs, has published a Vaccination Roadmap framework to help establish vaccination hubs dedicated to seafarers across the world.

Despite the huge and ongoing impact of the pandemic shipping has continued in earnest to ensure it will reach its decarbonisation targets. As I write, we are weeks away from MEPC 76; a pivotal UN meeting that will set the green agenda for maritime for years to come. Short-term measures will be discussed, along with energy efficiency and carbon intensity targets. If adopted these will be made international law by 2023 and lay important groundwork for a greener future.

Significantly, the ICS proposal for the global shipping industry to set up a $5 billion research and development fund will be discussed at MEPC 76 and is being taken forward by 10 member states. The submission to the IMO is co-sponsored by Denmark, Georgia, Greece, Japan, Liberia, Malta, Nigeria, Palau, Singapore and Switzerland.

The International Maritime Research and Development Board would be subject to IMO Oversight, with the sole duty to accelerate the research and development of low-carbon and zero-carbon fuels, energy sources, propulsion systems and other new GHG reduction technologies, operating under a Charter approved by the IMO. ICS has also called for the vital discussion of market-based measures to be brough forward ahead of this critical IMO meeting. This will be essential in incentivising the transition of the global fleet to new fuels.

This past year has truly shown those of us at the International Chamber of Shipping not only the resilience and adaptability of our network of National Associations but also how essential it is to work collaboratively in the face of adversity. Even his Holiness the Pope has expressed his support for the seafarers during the crew change crisis and joined calls from the UN Secretary General. Let us continue in this spirit to face the challenges of decarbonisation and I am certain we will be able to weather any storm that comes our way.