As the shipping industry addresses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, International Registries, Inc. and its affiliates (IRI), which provides administrative and technical support to the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) Corporate and Maritime Registries, is working closely with ship owners and operators to ensure vessels and cargo are moving and trading as efficiently as possible.
In the short term, travel bans and the restrictions imposed on the movement of people to contain the spread of COVID-19 remain a challenge for crew and ship managers alike.
There are approximately 1.6 million seafarers serving on internationally trading merchant ships around the world. More than 4,700 vessels fly the RMI flag, including over 1,000 Greek-controlled ships, and nearly 100,000 seafarers serve on RMI-flagged vessels. Restrictions placed on crew changes and movement have a profound impact on the safety and welfare of these seafarers. The RMI Registry was quick to make a public call for all government agencies and industry stakeholders to recognize COVID-19 as a force majeure situation that necessitates flexibility. The Registry joined industry authorities, including the International Maritime Organization (IMO), in calling on countries to recognize and protect seafarers as “key transport workers” amid restrictions around the pandemic, which differ considerably between nations.
“Our team has been working tirelessly to support the global maritime industry in coping with what is a very dynamic situation. We have been doing everything in our power to ensure that the safety, security, and welfare of seafarers is protected, and that their critical role in ensuring vital supply chains continue to function is recognized worldwide,” said Theofilos Xenakoudis, Managing Director of IRI’s Piraeus office and Director, Worldwide Business Operations.
Maintaining safe operations
It is not only the crews who are impacted by COVID-19 related travel restrictions, but also the many people who need to board vessels to support safe vessel operations. These include the nautical inspectors who are critical to ensuring compliance with national and international regulations. The RMI recognizes that it is vital to maintain a robust inspection regime; without inspections, the ships, their crews, and the wider environment are put at risk. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic means that it is not always possible to conduct inspections. Therefore, the RMI Registry issued Marine Safety Advisory 17-20, which allows for temporary alternative inspection arrangements when an in-person inspection is not possible. Under such circumstances, the regional Fleet Operations Manager reviews the performance history of the vessel and the company, and decides whether to reschedule the inspection for a later date or conduct the inspection remotely with crew interaction.
For ship surveys and statutory inspections, the Registry urges ship operators to make every effort to ensure that certificates are valid using both physical and remote survey techniques where possible. However, there may be issues in securing dry-docks and repair facilities, receiving essential equipment, and organizing servicing technicians. The RMI has made adjustments to account for these challenges. This includes authorizing International Association of Classification Society members to act on the Registry’s behalf and recommend a course of action.
In the unlikely case where neither a physical nor a remote survey can be organized, then the Recognized Organization (RO) may recommend a period of grace of up to three months— and while it is not guaranteed that every port State control (PSC) will accept extended certificates, this evidence may be shown to PSC authorities.
IRI anticipates measures to adjust as global travel restrictions are lifted. The latest COVID-19 related information and advisories from the Registry can be found at www.register-iri.com/covid-19/.
IRI’s decentralized structure, with 28 offices worldwide, each with decision making authority, has the benefit of ensuring all the core functions of the RMI Registry are maintained with little interruption throughout the crisis. While some offices, such as the Piraeus office, have maintained a rotating staff, many of IRI’s team members are working from home. IRI’s operations teams including Corporate, Technical, Marine Safety, Seafarers’ Documentation, Radio Station Licensing, Vessel Registration, and Vessel Documentation, which together support ship operators, shipowners, Classification Societies (Class) / ROs, filing agents, banks, law firms, and other industry stakeholders continue to be available and engaged in providing the high-quality client service.
On the commercial side of the business, the pandemic has changed the way business operates—but it hasn’t changed IRI’s flexible and solutions-driven team. Closings have been hosted via video conference, working closely with law firms, clients, and banks. With the emergency powers enacted under the Maritime Act, the Maritime Administrator can use virtual contingency plans to complete vessel transactions seamlessly.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, one of the biggest sources of concern for many ship operators was the transition to a global, low-sulphur emissions regime. However, according to Mr. Xenakoudis the first few months of the new regime have gone relatively smoothly for RMI flagged vessels. Mr. Xenakoudis notes that since January 2020, high levels of compliance with the 2020 sulphur emissions regulations have been noted, with only a handful of cases reported. Where difficulties were encountered, these were typically due to low-sulphur fuel oil non-availability.
“We do expect some IMO 2020-related challenges to arise from COVID-19,” Xenakoudis said. “But I’d like to emphasize that the RMI Registry is here to support, not penalize—especially where every effort has clearly been made to comply—and to recommend that operators continue to work closely with us should they encounter any difficulties,” he continued.
The RMI Registry worked closely with ship owners and operators, alongside industry partners, in the lead-up to the IMO 2020 transition. Currently, the Registry is urging ship operators to remain vigilant regarding potential fuel oil quality and availability issues worldwide in the event of unforeseen supply disruptions. Mr. Xenakoudis noted that the Registry will assess Fuel Oil Non-Availability Reports on a case-by-case basis.
While COVID-19 is, of course, at the top of everyone’s minds, IRI operates with the knowledge that this storm will pass. Mr. Xenakoudis stated:
“We cannot afford to let standards of safety and best practices slide during these trying times. At IRI, while we are doing our level best to support the industry, we also remain committed to pursuing business as usual, as much as practicably possible. This means continuing our work on the upcoming regulatory agenda, maintaining our exceptionally low PSC detention ratio, further growing our fleet of QUALSHIP 21 – certified vessels, and ensuring the highest standards of safety and best practices across the board.”
In early April, the RMI Registry was awarded the United States Coast Guard’s QUALSHIP 21 qualification for the 16th consecutive year which is representative of the flag’s proven track record for quality. Approximately one-third of all QUALSHIP 21-certified vessels are flying the RMI flag, which exemplifies the quality of the owners and operators in the fleet. The other major flags, Panama and Liberia, are not included on the QUALSHIP 21 roster. “In fact, the Liberian flag is now targeted by the USCG,” said Mr. Xenakoudis.
IRI, with more than 70 years of experience as a maritime and corporate registry service provider, has a network of 28 offices worldwide. Each office has the ability to register a vessel or yacht, including those under construction, record a mortgage or financing charter, incorporate a company, issue seafarer documentation, and service clientele. IRI concentrates solely on administering the Republic of the Marshall Islands flag and provides a full spectrum of registry-related services for the shipping and financial services industries.