Thursday, January 9, 2020

As Bushfires Sweep Australia Local Maritime Community Steps Up to Help

Cruise Ports Suffer More than Container and Freight Facilities
Shipping News Feature

AUSTRALIA – Many people throughout the shipping industry will have been concerned at how the horrific chain of bushfires, the worst in history by a country mile, is affecting the logistics sector, and with everybody in the hardest hit areas involved too busy to take to social media or comment, news forthcoming has been sparse.

It would appear that by their very nature that the ports traditionally associated with the movement of freight have been least affected by the infernos. Lying obviously on the waterfront itself, generations of expanding infrastructure have seemingly meant the ports lie well away from the conflagrations or indeed are situated in less forested areas. This however does not make them immune.

The heavy smoke which has swept across the country and waters such as the Bass Strait to Tasmania and Flinders Island, and even passed over the Tasman Sea to pollute the air of New Zealand, has on occasion heavily polluted Sydney Harbour and other waterfront regions of the Port Authority of New South Wales, all dependent on the vagaries of the prevailing winds which have powered the flames.

Whilst most of the ports currently affected are dedicated to cruise vessels and environmental holiday tours, the potential damage, both to trade and health is worrying. Eco tours only work with a healthy environment for people to look at and with projections that the pollution could actually reach South America it should be realised that the threat to human health from particulates carried by the winds is very substantial.

Analysts have said breathing the air in Sydney recently was equivalent to chain smoking, with at least 25 dead, scores missing and thousands more suffering from the air quality. An area around 16 million acres, half the size of England, has been destroyed and the vast clouds of billowing smoke carry with them countless trillions of microscopic particles, linked to chest and heart problems and even deaths.

It is hard to describe the scope and effect of this natural disaster. Whilst the traumatic photographs of the cute and cuddly creatures horrendously caught by the flames are those that stay in the memory, the long term damage runs much deeper. Some estimates put the death toll at a billion animals, but this discounts creatures such as insects, crucial to the environmental infrastructure, and with damage far exceeding previous years no one can assess the long term consequences.

One port which was adversely affected was the Port of Eden where cruise ships were advised to abandon calls as the wood mills adjacent to the port saw logs scheduled for export catch on fire. 70 or so kilometres or so to the south there was real potential for disaster as the Australian naval vessels HMAS Choules and Sycamore carried 963 of the 4,000 or so souls trapped on the beaches of the town of Mallacoota to the safety of Western Port 500 kilometres to the west.

Actively involved in that rescue were members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), whose National Secretary Paddy Crumlin used the incident to drive home points he has long been concerned about regarding the importance of maintaining a sovereign shipping capability, something he said successive governments had failed to appreciate, each failing to grasp the vital role shipping plays in times of crisis.

After the crew of the Norwegian-flagged Far Saracen supply vessel was tasked by the Victorian Emergency Co-ordinator to deliver much needed relief supplies to Mallacoota and Mr Crumlin commented:

“Australian and Kiwi seafarers were the first on the scene with much needed supplies of food, water and diesel. While the Federal Government was resisting calls to activate the Australia’s Defence Forces, our seafarers were able to get those supplies to Mallacoota, a full 24 hours before the first naval vessel arrived in the area.

”This was an important mission for a ship which is usually engaged in the resupply of off-shore rigs, so they are well versed in the logistics of resupply. In this case their efforts not only took the pressure off a population of locals and holiday-makers stranded by the bushfires, but also brought diesel into Mallacoota to power generators and fuel CFA fire trucks.

“Our MUA seafarers have been the backbone of relief efforts throughout Australia’s history and this was the case in Mallacoota. The civilian crews of the training vessel Sycamore and the supply vessel Far Senator and the Sealink Kangaroo Island Ferries are also doing their bit to back up our fire fighters and bring relief to those stranded and cut off by fire.

“With fire closing the highway across Nullarbor shipping is needed to maintain supply links until road transport could get through. Our island nation’s blue highway is a proven alternative, however the lack of Australian coastal shipping capacity prevents this from being an option.

“At a time of national crisis like the bushfire emergency, the need for an Australian merchant fleet has never been clearer. We were a key part of the relief effort following the destruction of Darwin by Cyclone Tracy and we will back up to assist Australians whenever there is a humanitarian need. Merchant seafarers have always been at the forefront of our battles and provided support in times of peace and war and this is a timely reminder that our Australian-flagged shipping remains essential to our national interest.”

Photo: A pair of images from the NASA Landsat satellite showing the change in air as fire swept over the Mallacoota region, the smoke completely obscuring the landscape.