Shipping alliances, environmental regulations and labour shortages are potential threats to European harbour towage
European harbour towage is heavily impacted by IMO environmental policies, flag state requirements and European Union regulations. Chief among these is the underlying threat to European harbour towage that could come from container ship owners forming alliances to optimise (ie cut costs on) ship operations, voyages and cargo carriage.
Alliances are allowed under the EU’s Consortia Block Exemption Regulation, which is under review this year. The European Tugowners Association (ETA) is lobbying the European Commission to ensure that this block exemption – if it is extended after next year – will clearly exclude towage from port services joint purchasing. If the ETA is unsuccessful, joint purchasing powers could potentially give container ship owners leverage to control the market and pricing.
The decision should come before the end of this year, but with a new parliament, it may be delayed into 2020.
Outside of this potential pitfall, the biggest regulatory unknown for tug owners is what emissions controls measures the EU and flag states will impose on port service vessels.
Because they operate in ports, tugs are often the most immediately visible representatives of the shipping industry and, as such, are on the front line in moves to curb emissions in ports.
The new ETA chairman, Kimmo Lehto* says there is no certainty around what policies the EU and flag states will introduce, only the near certainty that emissions regulations will eventually be enforced.
“Environment is the big issue for us,” he tells Tug Technology & Business. “Will there be new EU regulations? This could be a coming concern to tug owners, but we do not know yet what may come.”
He adds that ETA members own the greenest and most technologically advanced tugs in the sector. Some of the association’s members operate environmentally friendly LNG-fuelled and hybrid propulsion tugs.
The majority of their tugs are also less than 500 gt, so they come under flag state legislation. “It is challenging that every flag state has different regulations for tugs,” says Mr Lehto. “We want to collect and compare these rules as our aim is to work with flag states to agree common rules.”
Crewing and safety
Safety remains an ongoing challenge for tug operators. Tug crews work in hazardous conditions and interact with seafarers on assisted ships and pilots. Which is why ETA worked with the European Maritime Pilots Association to produce an animated video highlighting good practice communications between ship captains, pilots and tug masters.
“Durability of tow ropes is also an issue,” says Mr Lehto. “It is important to select the right product and know when it is time to change it. Because of wear, ropes usually last around 1,000 jobs.”
In Europe, skilled local labour forces are increasingly scarce, made more so by the fact that shipping is failing to build a local workforce trained for modern tug operations. In response, owners are frequently recruiting mariners worldwide to secure the most highly trained crew available.
Demands on existing crew skillsets are changing more quickly, too. The new generation of tugs have technically advanced and complex engineroom systems, higher levels of automation and additional wheelhouse systems.
Seafarers increasingly need advanced IT experience and skills to manage and maintain new communications, automation and remote monitoring technology platforms. For owners, building the additional skills means changing training requirements and investing further in human resources.
*Kimmo Lehto is manager of health, safety, environment and quality with tug owner Alfons Håkans