Every year on Sept. 24, World Maritime Day is observed to recognize the importance of the marine environment, the effects of the shipping industry on oceans, and the safety of seafarers who spend months away from home.
Nearly everyone is indirectly affected by the shipping industry. While many people don’t know much about shipping and the maritime industry, nearly all the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the objects we use in our daily lives come to us via ship.
This year, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, World Maritime Day celebrations are focused on rebuilding the economy post-COVID-19 and the importance of meeting the Global goals by 2030.
World leaders spoke at a virtual event to share plans for the future and observe the importance of shipping. Here are six major takeaways from World Maritime Day this year.
1. This Year’s Theme Is “Sustainable Shipping for a Sustainable Planet"
This year’s theme is “Sustainable Shipping for a Sustainable Planet,” in support of the United Nations’ Global Goals. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) Secretary-General Kitack Lim explained that this decision was finalized before the outbreak of COVID-19.
Global Goal 14 is dedicated to conserving and protecting the oceans, seas, and marine resources. Lim explained that shipping and maritime activities will be at the forefront of the initiatives to protect the oceans.
Throughout the event, leaders discussed implementing institutional frameworks to achieve goals like being energy efficient and using new technologies to reduce carbon emissions.
2. Shipping is the Most Sustainable Form of Trade — and the Industry Is Working to Be Better
While the industry is doing work to become more sustainable, it is still the safest and cheapest way to trade commodities on a global scale.
Birgit Marie Liodden is the founder and CEO of the Ocean Opportunity Lab and a board member at TECO 2030 who is at the forefront of the work to reduce marine shipping’s environmental impact.
Although many people associate shipping with environmental destruction, it is actually the most sustainable method of trade, Liodden explained.
“If you wanted to transport things with a plane instead of a ship, most of the time you would end up emitting 30 times more CO2 to transport the same item,” she told Global Citizen. “The cost of it would also amount to many many times fold the amount.”
Liodden has been working in the maritime industry for 15 years and said that while shipping is not fully sustainable yet, the industry has gotten much better and implemented huge changes in recent years.
“That doesn’t mean that we can’t do even better,” she said. “We have to do better.”
3. The Pandemic Has Caused a Humanitarian Crisis for Seafarers
Throughout the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of seafarers have been trapped on ships for months and unable to return home due to travel restrictions, resulting in a humanitarian crisis.
The UN estimated that more than 300,000 members of the maritime workforce are currently trapped at sea.
Access to Wi-Fi on ships is often prohibitively expensive which makes communication with family members and friends onshore impossible. Seafarers also no longer have access to medical checks at seaports around the world, which means that medical conditions have gone unchecked and untreated for months.
Seafarers UK has reported an increase in recent suicides and is urging the International Labour Organization to take steps to ensure seafarer suicides are prevented.
Hedi Marzougui, shipmaster of the (M/V) SLNC Corsica, also spoke at the online event about the challenges that seafarers faced during the pandemic.
“Not knowing when, or if, we would be returning home took a severe mental health toll on my crew and myself,” Marzougui said. “We felt we were being treated as second-class citizens, with no input or control on our lives. However, even under these stressing conditions, the show had to go on.”
There are also many seafarers who are trapped at home and unable to return to work. Without access to employment, these workers are at risk of going hungry or being pushed into poverty.
4. There’s a Push for Seafarers to Be Designated as Key Workers
Although the global community has not prioritized the situation that seafarers are facing, World Maritime Day brought it to the center of attention.
Lim and UN Secretary-General António Guterres have both advocated for seafarers to be considered essential workers during the pandemic. This would allow for safe crew changes where fatigued seafarers could return home and be replaced by people looking for work.
Mansukh Mandaviya, India’s union minister for shipping, commended seafarers’ dedication to their work.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the professionalism and sacrifice of the 2 million seafarers,” he said during the online conference.
It's #WorldMaritimeDay 2020 saw everyone across the globe affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet this global crisis has demonstrated the importance of shipping. https://t.co/utxNRkB8ga#SustainableShippingpic.twitter.com/930H4s83LR— IMO (@IMOHQ) September 24, 2020
At the event, many others also paid their respect to the "invisible workforce" of seafarers.
The IMO also took steps to establish a Seafarer Crisis Action Team to provide medical treatment and evacuation, mental health support, and safe working conditions for seafarers throughout the pandemic.
5. Shipping Is an Essential Form of Trade During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Even though global trade declined during the pandemic, the importance of shipping in supporting global trade networks was highlighted as airplanes and airports were grounded to try and stop the spread of the virus.
“In the time of COVID and lockdown, without the maritime industry, we would not be able to transport 90% of the world’s goods, supplies, and energy,” Liodden explained. “A lot of countries in the world would have fallen into complete chaos because today we are so dependent on global trade.”
The IMO explains that the world depends on a safe, secure, and efficient international shipping industry. In times of crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, that need is even more apparent.
Countries including the US and China also utilized the shipping industry to transport personal protective equipment and masks around the world to help other countries prepare for COVID-19.
6. Shipping Will Help Recover the Global Economy and Build a Sustainable Future
At the event, Lim suggested that the maritime sector has the potential to support an inclusive and resilient economy since it is essential to global trade.
Once travel restrictions are dismissed and global trade returns to pre-COVID-19 levels, many countries will use shipping as a way to rebuild their economies.
“A lot of developing countries are in need of getting their goods out to the global market in order to get money,” said Liodden.
In terms of rebuilding after the pandemic, Lim said: “Shipping will be at the heart of the economic recovery and future sustainable growth both at the sea and at the shore."