The following are remarks by Robert D. Somerville, President and COO ABS at Marine LogMaritime Legislation, Regulation and Policy conference (Washington DC, 19th September 2000)
Class has been savaged by the media, and roundly criticized by European legislators, in the period since the Erika fouled the beaches of Brittany last December. Class is not alone and cannot be the policemen of the industry. Class is just one link in the safety chain and cannot take the strain without the shipowner, the flag state, the port state, the underwriter, the shipbuilder and the charterer bearing their share of the load. None of these entities is "too reliant" on class. But not all of them appear to realize that they must be reliant on each other.
Ten to fifteen years ago, in the late 1980s, class did have a real credibility problem. Competitive pressure and technical improvements caused some class societies to lose sight of their fundamental mission. When we don't do our job right, there is a very real possibility that people could die. Within IACS there is not a single member society that wants to return to the late '80's. And that every member is very, very aware that we are yet to confront the full consequences of the decisions that were taken during that period. The light scantling fleet is only now entering the critical period of its service life when corrosion and fatigue will begin to take their toll.
Casualties are the result of a cumulative failure of the entire system. The consequences of that casualty rest with all those who had a role to play and who may not have fulfilled their obligations thoroughly. Of course there are still weak links in the chain. There are Port State regimes that exist on paper but not on the docks. There are flag states that adore the revenue but abhor the responsibility that shipping generates. There are some classification societies, and remember there are more than 50 organizations that claim to act in this capacity, that have never formulated a coherent mission statement encompassing life, property and the environment. There are underwriters and charterers who take a detached view of their place within the safety chain.
Class can do a better job and the major societies are constantly trying to do so. But class is not alone. Everyone has to play their part. The question - Are we all too reliant on classification societies? - should be reversed. Do all sectors of this industry give class sufficient, unambiguous support for it to be an effective self-regulating mechanism?
The world's fleet is rapidly aging. The recent surge in charter rates will only exacerbate this as ships that would have been scrapped 12 months ago make one more voyage, and one more after that. But the statistics are glaringly clear. Older ships are at greater risk. As ships pass the fifteen year marker they enter the high risk zone and stay there until finally withdrawn from service. This is the problem that class is wrestling with, both within the individual societies and within IACS.Recently IACS Council held informal working sessions with representatives of several industry associations. It is evidence of an interdependence that is essential for the future of this industry. Class is not an island, anymore than a responsible flag state, an active port state or the wise underwriter should be left to fight the battle of improving safety standards on their own.