“In my view,” said Michelle Taylor (pictured above). “One of the challenges for the marine insurance sector is to determine whether, as an industry, it wishes to be the mere arbiter of balance of laws or the forger of model behaviours when it comes to ship sourced pollution and the creation of new laws.”
Brisbane-based Taylor is partner and newly appointed board member at Sparke Helmore Lawyers. She described her work as involving “almost every legal problem” connected to ships.
With Christmas looming, 100s of container vessels have already crossed the high seas to supply Australia’s online and bricks and mortar stores with hundreds of tons of merchandise.
A rising tide of container pollution risks
According to many P&I Clubs, said Taylor, container losses are the most expensive casualties.
“The container trade now accounts for approximately 18% of the total seaborne task,” she said. “As vessel sizes increase and container stacks grow higher, the risk of container maritime casualties continues to intensify.”
Last year, the largest container ship in the world completed her first maiden voyage. The 400-metre long Ever Alot, according to marine industry news reports, is the first ever ship to have a capacity of more than 24,000 standard 20 foot containers. The ship was built in China and is owned by Taiwanese operator Evergreen Marine.
Its sister ship, Ever Given, made news headlines in early 2021 when it became grounded and blocked the Suez Canal. The six-day blockage threw global supply chains into chaos with some estimates putting losses at US$1 billion.
Taylor said changing global weather patterns and increased pressure on supply chains has focused the industry’s attention on overboard container events.
“Specifically – the recognition of environmental harm, the identification of the responsible party, prevention measures and liabilities,” she said. “Legal developments in this evolving area of law are becoming a priority.”
The plastic goods within containers, according to marine conservation groups, are a major cause of pollution at sea.
Can the marine insurance industry help end ocean pollution?
“One of the greatest challenges for the shipping industry and our world more generally is responsibility for plastic pollution, particularly ship-sourced plastic pollution,” said Taylor.
In 2019, said Taylor, the first global insurance industry study was published on managing risks of plastic pollution and microplastics, in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme.
“Currently, there are no international laws that adequately deal with this problem,” she said. “Keystone species are important because they define an entire ecosystem and, in my view, pollution protection regimes for our oceans are the keystone laws of our future.
According to National Geographic, keystone species are critical to the survival of the other species in an ecosystem. Taylor’s support for similar laws to protect the oceans underscores the urgency of the plastics threat. She said plastic pollution from ships is on the increase and “the epidemic of containers overboard” is becoming difficult to ignore.
“There has been a notable spike in such incidents,” said Taylor. “Whether containers wash ashore or are lost at sea, the environmental impact is tangible.”
In 1992, she said, a container holding 29,000 plastic ducks, frogs and turtles was lost in the Pacific. Thousands of those items washed ashore on beaches worldwide and many were still arriving on European coastlines 15 years later.
In 2019, The Ocean Cleanup’s purpose-built Maersk Launcher started removing plastics from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This area of sea has the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world, covering an area three times the size of France. The charity, The Ocean Cleanup, was founded by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat at the age of 18.
“Unlike oil, plastics do not dissipate into the sea,” she said. “Plastics are becoming a high-profile threat to the sustainability of our oceans and there is continuing research into the environmental harm caused by plastics breaking down into microplastics.”
Read next: Who should be liable for shipwrecks?
The recent flooding across Australia’s east coast also generated work for Taylor. While much of the focus for insurance companies and brokers during these events is around inundated homes and businesses, the maritime law expert was solving other issues.
“I recently acted for a number of marine insurers on claims related to the 2022 Brisbane floods,” she said. “This included collisions between vessels and marinas and pontoons that had dislodged during the flood event.”