Shelley Beasley, head of marine NZ at Sedgwick, started her career as a surveyor in the New Zealand marine industry in 1986, and provides an update on the cargo market.

Go back 30 years

Exponential growth in shipping, together with technological innovations and more stringent health and safety legislation, has driven huge changes in the way the industry operates.  Go back 30 years, and things were completely different.  In the 1990s, the marine insurance and surveying industry was male-dominated.  Today, we have many female marine surveyors – now most staff and managers across the marine insurance sector are women.

Much of a marine surveyors’ time used to be spent on the wharves. The Ports of Auckland had several cargo sheds, and they were the only party that unloaded the containers, which meant it could take weeks for importers to receive their cargo. Claims for missing shipments were common.  This was due to packages being damaged or poorly marked, so they were put aside, often found months later in a corner of one of the sheds. Most cargo was inspected at the wharf before delivery and regularly included imported new cars, pipes and cases of car parts.

Slow progress

Marine surveyors used to be able to wander around the wharves with just a clipboard and a business card.  Now they must be accompanied by a port staff member at all times.  A full induction process is mandatory, photo ID is required at sign-in, and minimum PPE of high-viz jackets and safety boots must be worn.  Surveyors driving onto the wharf must have their vehicles inspected inside and out and then be escorted to the survey destination by port security staff.

Thirty years ago, things didn’t happen that quickly, and there were numerous downtimes when you had to wait during smoko, meal breaks and shift changeovers.  Today, many ports run 24/7, and almost all containers are devanned off the wharf by a range of companies, within a day or two of arrival – COVID-19 issues aside.  So, most surveys are now held at the insured’s premises or third-party logistics firms.

Digital sensors

Reefer containers used to have Partlow charts, which were often difficult to read due to the recorders running out of ink, or the paper discs not being replaced in time.  Who knows how many temperature-sensitive goods, such as pharmaceuticals, ultimately arrived heat-affected?  Today, reefers are digital, with sensors fitted to smart containers offering real-time data on cargo temperatures during the voyage.  Shippers also send inexpensive digital data loggers with their cargo that can be downloaded instantly on arrival – surveyors also have access to a range of temperature probes and thermal imaging cameras.

Roof access

When inspecting containers, it wasn’t uncommon for a surveyor to climb onto the roof via the door hinges.  The other option was to be lifted via a fork hoist on a pallet, more often than not accompanied by a shipping company surveyor.  With clipboard and camera clutched in one hand, you had to hold on to the fork hoist mast tightly with the other while carefully avoiding the grease and moving parts.  Now, if you need to inspect the roof, you are placed inside a fully fenced cage and secured with a safety tether.

New technology

Computers and digital developments have moved things on at a pace in all aspects of marine surveying work.  Before digitalisation, reports had to be hand-typed with carbon copies and then put in the post.  Original documents had to be obtained, and photographic films sent out to be developed.   What a difference computers, scanners, the internet, emails and digital photos have made, vastly reducing the time and effort involved in preparing and submitting client reports.

Smartphones now allow us to take and transfer high-quality images and videos and carry out virtual inspections.  Drones are also increasingly deployed to view damage to ships and containers at sea remotely.  Ports also have live online data available, and vessels can be tracked throughout their voyages.

Today, there are a large range of shock and tiltmeters that can be attached to cargo and, if activated, will alert everyone to the potential of the contents of a package being damaged.    

Pandemic effect

More recently, COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the marine industry.  A huge increase in exports out of Asia has created a trade imbalance and a shortage of shipping containers.  Some exporters are using containers that would usually be rejected, but they have few options.  This is driving an overall increase of around 500% in shipping rates.

In New Zealand, we have ongoing problems with port congestion, leading to long delays in cargo arriving, putting perishable goods at particular risk.  To increase capacity, over the past year, Ports of Auckland has been testing automated straddle carriers to load and unload trucks and operate the container yard.

However, for the time being, shipping companies are choosing not to call at many of our ports, or they are held at anchor awaiting berths or changing the discharge port due to congestion at the main terminals.  As a result, importers are being billed for the additional expenses, including numerous congestion levies, detention charges and costs to relocate containers.  Exporters are also paying inland freight costs to get their cargo to alternative ports when the schedules change.

Our top exporters of dairy, meat and produce are looking at chartering vessels to get their cargo out to customers, and other companies are using what limited airfreight is available to ship urgently needed goods.   And this all culminates in increased costs for importers, exporters and insurers when a claim occurs.  When or whether we will ever return to pre-pandemic shipping patterns is as yet unknown.

The future

In 2019 alone, 226 million containers were shipped, with total cargo estimated at $4 trillion.  The World Shipping Council estimates that there are 6,000 ships carrying containers around the world at any point in time.  Bigger ships, carrying in excess of 30,000 TEUs are being developed, but this creates other problems.  Not every port has the infrastructure to cope with vessels of this size or the volume of cargo that has to be managed on arrival.  Blockchain technology will bring even greater changes for the industry in the future, and crewless ships are expected to be regulated by 2025.

Remains the same

What hasn’t changed is the damage we see to cargo.  Container ships still have fires, they sink or flood and cargo is still lost, truck incidents occur, containers get damaged, refrigerated containers malfunction, or shipments are badly handled or incorrectly packed.  This means the role of the marine surveyor remains exactly the same.  Thirty years on, following a myriad of developments and improvements – even a global pandemic – we are still required to:

• Investigate the nature and extent of damage or loss and establish the possible cause

• Assist claimants, without prejudice, on methods necessary to mitigate the loss

• Issue a factual survey reportz to enable any liability to be determined by the client

• Make recommendations to prevent the same type of damage or loss occurring in the future

• Ensure recovery rights are protected

And the general view is that this will never change.

September 2021

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