Outlook 2018: Cyber attacks remain a major threat

Cyber attacks present an escalating danger to the safety of ships and crew. Credit: Getty Images

Perennial safety risks – piracy and kidnappings, dangerous cargoes, catastrophic equipment failure, and crew fatigue – still loom. But on top of those, there is a growing and emerging threat in 2018: cyber attacks.

Major shipping names such as Maersk, BW Group, and Clarksons were hit by such attacks last year. Those incidents involved shoreside IT systems, but the increasing connect-ivity of vessels and their heightened reliance on software are bringing the cyber threat to sea.

This risk was hammered home after an industry source revealed to Fairplay sister publication Safety at Sea (SAS) that a German container ship had been hacked and lost control of its navigation system for 10 hours during a cyber attack that occurred in February 2017.

Shipowners should make moves this year to harden their cyber resilience both onshore and at sea. Given the International Maritime Organization (IMO) resolution to include cyber guidelines in the International Safety Management code, cyber risks must be addressed in safety management systems no later than the first annual verification of the company’s document of compliance after 1 January 2021.

Staff training will be key. A recent Fairplay cyber-security survey revealed that 66% of personnel admitted to opening email attachments from strangers, attachments that could easily contain malware or ransomware. Crew blamed a lack of education as the main reason for their risky behaviour, with more than 76% of respondents stating that they had received no training on cyber security.

Information sharing also will be an essential component to cyber defences. Employees at all levels – from crew to executives – must feel free to disclose breaches without fear of retribution, and companies must overcome fears of reputational damage and share their insights with competitors.

Although the Somalia piracy threat remains low, the dangers off the coast of Nigeria and in Asia are high. According to the latest International Maritime Bureau report, there were 121 actual or attempted attacks on vessels during the first three quarters of 2017, down from 141 during the same period in 2016 and 190 in the first nine months of 2015. There were 23 reported incidents in Indonesia, 20 in Nigeria, and 17 in the Philippines.

Kidnapping is the primary threat; 49 crew members were kidnapped during the first nine months of last year, with 39 taken off the coast of Nigeria.

In the dry bulk sector, where there has long been a risk of cargo liquefaction, research from the Global Bauxite Working Group (GBWG) determined last year that a previously unknown non-liquefaction process called ‘dynamic separation’ was responsible for the 2015 sinking of Bulk Jupiter. Dynamic separation occurs when wet, finer-grained bauxites go through a slumping and separation process that causes the upward expulsion of water and slurry. The GBWG’s findings prompted new IMO guidelines on bauxite carriage.

There are also renewed concerns over liquefaction risks related to mineral ore exports from Indonesia, which partially overturned its ban on the export of nickel ore and bauxite in 2017. Despite important changes to legislation – namely the designation of nickel ore as a ‘Group A’ cargo that may liquefy – evidence suggests that safety compliance practices in the region remain substandard.

P&I clubs have advised shipowners and charterers visiting Indonesia to first obtain information from cargo shippers to demonstrate that mines have the required mining and export licences.

Masters and officers are advised to then carry out can tests on cargo moisture levels as a spot check, even though this should never replace a full laboratory test.

Another safety risk in the dry bulk sector that emerged last year involved the use of very large ore carriers (VLOCs) that were converted from older very large crude carriers. Concerns about the safety of such vessels grew after 22 crew members died in the sinking of Polaris Shipping-operated Stellar Daisy in March 2017.

While there have been no regulatory decisions, market forces have prompted change. Brazilian ore miner Vale is believed to be requesting newer ships for the transport of its iron ore following the sinking of Stellar Daisy. To renew its fleet and replace its older converted vessels, South Korea’s Polaris ordered 15 VLOC newbuildings in September and October 2017.

With the 0.5% global limit on fuel sulphur content set to go into effect in 2020, some operators are opting to use liquefied natural gas (LNG) for bunker fuel. The safe handling of LNG fuel is already on the agenda, with Singapore having begun LNG bunkering trials in 2017 to ensure a smooth and safe process for all personnel involved.

There is also a fuel-switching safety issue as vessels move between areas in which different grades of fuel are used. Gary Rawlings, a consultant with TMC Marine, told SAS that the crew’s failure to follow proper procedures when switching fuels at emission control area boundaries was leading to a marked increase in vessels suffering a loss of propulsion.

Steve Bee, group commercial and business development director at Veritas Petroleum Services, told SAS that there were also concerns surrounding the flashpoints of low-sulphur fuels, which will be discussed at the IMO Marine Safety Committee meeting in June. He noted that ‘cold flow’ properties of distillate fuel could cause safety issues as well.

Bee said crew should be trained to store fuel in temperature-controlled areas and check the gas for signs of ‘clouding’, which signifies that it has reached the point at which wax will likely be produced. Such procedures will help prevent hazardous incid-ents, which Bee said are even more likely as substandard fuels enter the market before major environmental legislation comes into force. He strongly advised shipping companies to test fuels regularly to ensure quality, particularly nearer the 2020 deadline.

Crew fatigue is yet another major focus for commercial shipping. In early 2017, results of a three-year study into the issue, called Project Martha, were presented to the IMO. Project Martha revealed that captains suffer from fatigue and stress more than their crews, that night watch-keepers get much less total sleep than others on board and, importantly, that fatigue can cause long-term physical and mental health problems.

At a crew welfare roundtable held by SAS in mid-2017, it was noted that suicide rates for crew members were rising and that findings from the Seafarers International Research Centre revealed a notable increase in psychiatric disorders among seafarers in the past five years. Potential reasons included social isolation and long working hours.

Major shipping operators, such as Shell, are rolling out schemes to better support crew and prevent serious incidents from occurring. Richard Turner, managing director of Shell Ship Management, told SAS about an initiative that will begin early this year.

Shell is focusing on three “credible, focused, and effective” actions: training management and onshore personnel on mental health awareness in a bid to spot warning signs in crew members and better support them; developing an app or website on which crew members can anonymously report their concerns; and educating families of crew members to give them a better idea of the stresses and strains of life at sea.

For Turner, the stakes of this project are high. “For me it is personal,” he said. “If I lose someone in the fleet, it is my responsibility. The hope is that industry will also align on this, but even if we save one person, that will be amazing. Loss of life from mental health can be prevented.”

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