Ferries: the floating coffins of the Philippines?

By DA Maliwanag
The Mindoro Post

(Special Report)

Major sea accidents had been routinely followed by high-profile congressional inquiries that bore little fruit in ensuring maritime safety in the Philippines.

Bills seeking changes in the “scattered” and archaic laws governing sea transport take a backseat in both houses of Congress.

A Ro-Ro prepares to dock at the Calapan port.

This despite the poor maritime safety record of the Philippines, which takes pride in having the biggest number of seafarers manning overseas fleet.

Sea mishaps

More than 200 sea mishaps occur annually in the country.

From 1988 to 2009 alone, 13 major sea accidents were recorded, leaving at least 6,100 people dead. The 1987 MV Doña Paz sinking that killed 4,341 people is considered the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.

Last year, the holiday season was marred by two sea mishaps that occurred just two days apart.

On December 24, Lubang-bound MV Catalyn B sank after it rammed into steel-hulled fishing vessel F/V Anatalia. Twenty-seven passengers perished in the collision.

Two days later, MV Baleno 9 went down in fair weather while sailing from Calapan City to Batangas. Six bodies were found the following day while the fate of 44 others has remained unknown up till now.

The twin sea tragedies highlighted anew the sorry state of the Philippine shipping industry and triggered a review of government regulatory agencies and maritime safety rules.

Backbone of inter-island travel

Ferries are the backbone of inter-island travel in the archipelagic Philippines, where sea accidents are common because of frequent tropical storms, poorly-maintained ships and weak enforcement of maritime safety regulations.

A fuming then Senator Richard Gordon in January bawled out the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) for failing to curb mishaps at sea.

“There is no governance at sea in this country today—absolutely no governance,” said Gordon at the conclusion of Senate’s marathon inquiry into the December disasters. “There is just greed, tolerance for the incompetent, the unsafe and the greedy.”

Investigations bared a perfect recipe for disaster: inland vessels were allowed to sail in the open sea, unlicensed captains manned passenger vessels, overloading was not routinely checked, vehicles in Ro-Ro’s cargo compartment were not always securely lashed, and passenger ships could leave ports without submitting the required safe voyage manifest.

MV Baleno 6

‘Floating coffins’

In a parallel probe at the House of Representatives, Marina deputy administrator for operations Primo Rivera put the blame on ageing sea vessels.

He said the country has 142 roll-on roll-off (Ro-Ro) ships below 500 gross tons and 37 registered Ro-Ro vessels above 500 gross tons. But most, if not all, are hand-me-down and nearing the age of unseaworthiness.

Authorities consider a ship ageing if it has been in service for 28 to 34 years. MV Baleno 9 had been cruising the waters for 25 years and over 20 years for MV Catalyn B when they sank.

Some House members said no amount of repair could guarantee the seaworthiness of old ships. Former Representative Antonio Cerilles was blunter in his demand: “Floating coffins should be phased out.”

At the same time, it was found out during inquiries that wooden-hulled passenger ferries, like the Catalyn B, could still ply the open sea.

The mostly televised inquiries in the 14th Congress wrapped up with scathing remarks, but without significant results in terms of maritime legislation.

New Congress, new bills

The 15th Congress was formally opened in July, with reelected lawmakers refiling their pet bills amid a lack of assurance they will not just gather dust again in the chambers.

Senator Sergio Osmeña III, in his proposed measure, wants better safeguards by specifying safety voyage requirements and imposing stiffer penalties on erring ship officials and owners.

In his explanatory note on the Maritime Safety Act, Osmeña said that “these tragedies could have been avoided by appropriate safeguards that should have been institutionalized by the appropriate laws.”

Osmeña filed the bill on July 5 but it has remained pending in the Senate public services committee.

A worker repaints a vessel at the port of Calapan.

Representative Rodolfo Biazon described the Philippine maritime laws as “scattered” and archaic.

In House Bill 1155, Biazon seeks to upgrade the laws dealing with registration of ships, maritime liens and ship mortgages, maritime fraud, accidents at sea and ship owner’s liability.

Static development

The laws on maritime commerce and trade are dispersed in various codes, laws, decrees, executive orders and treaties, Biazon said.

“Not only are these laws scattered, they are more than two decades old already,” he said.

The development and growth of the Philippine admiralty and maritime law, according to Biazon, is almost static, if not eroded, and its future is hard to predict.

“There is now a need for all stakeholders, particularly admiralty lawyers, ship owners and those who are involved in the shipping industry to help reform and update the country’s shipping laws,” he said.

After nearly 12 years on the backburner, the Philippine Coast Guard Act was signed into law in February. It ordered the transfer of the Philippine Coast Guard from the Department of National Defense to the Department of Transportation and Communications.

Under the law, the PCG has the core functions of enforcing maritime laws, marine environmental protection, and conducting search and rescue operations during sea emergencies.

But Senator Antonio Trillanes IV thinks the PCG has to have more teeth.

Although the Coast Guard Act authorizes the PCG to inspect ships, the law has no “clear-cut provisions regarding ship safety inspection services and penalties,” Trillanes said in the Maritime Safety Act of 2010 bill he filed on July 6.

The Domestic Shipping Development Act of 2004 transferred the safety enforcement functions of the Coast Guard to Marina.

But Marina during sea accident probes admitted that it, too, lacks police and regulatory powers to whip errant shipping firms.

Stiffer penalties

Osmeña recognizes that most of the existing regulations on maritime safety are based on Marina-issued memoranda, “which lack the necessary deterrents against violations of the regulations.”

Relatives anxiously waiting for any news about their missing loved ones in the Baleno 9 sinking.

Osmeña, who won the polls to a third Senate term in May, wants greater accountability and stiffer penalties, including imprisonment of up to 12 years for violators of maritime safety laws.

“To date, no shipowner, officer or government personnel has been actually taken to account for the recent tragedies that claimed numerous lives, and inflicted countless injuries,” he said.

“The poor and underprivileged who can afford only the services and facilities available from the local maritime fleet have a right to better safeguards, better laws and regulations that will ensure their safety.”

But some sectors fear these maritime reform bills might again face rough sailing in Congress amid strong industry lobbying.

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