A costly message from the Sanchi

The sinking of the Iranian freighter Sanchi earlier this month in Japan’s exclusive economic zone is one of the worst maritime disasters in recent years. All crew members of the ship are presumed dead and its cargo of petroleum liquids threatens to poison those waters for some time. This incident must be a wake-up call to officials and publics in Northeast Asia and compel them to better prepare for such accidents.

The Sanchi was a Panamanian-flagged supertanker, 274 meters in length with a displacement of more than 85,000 tons. Managed by the National Iranian Tanker Company, it was carrying 136,000 tons — about 1 million barrels — of condensate (a mix of petroleum liquids that are extracted from natural gas) destined for South Korea. On Jan. 6, the ship collided with the CF Crystal, a freighter, and its volatile cargo exploded. The accident occurred about 160 nautical miles east of Shanghai, but high winds pushed the ship away from China and into Japan’s EEZ where it sank eight days later.

All 32 members of the Sanchi’s crew are presumed dead; the entire crew of the CF Crystal have been rescued. Search and rescue efforts were hampered by bad weather and high seas, extreme conditions created by explosions and fire, the toxic chemicals involved and the remote location of the accident, which necessitated a 20-hour roundtrip to replenish equipment to fight the fires. Chinese officials said that “there was no precedent for this accident,” noting not only that conditions were worse than anything they had trained for but that it was the first time a tanker carrying this particular cargo had exploded.

This is the largest release of condensate ever; if most of the cargo has not burned up in the fire, the accident could produce an oil spill larger than that created by the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. The leakage has split into four separate slicks that cover about 101 sq km in total, and could affect an area up to 200 nautical miles long. Experts now fear that the ship is leaking its own fuel, which is heavier and will persist far longer in the marine environment than the condensate, which will dissipate quickly.

It was initially forecast that it would be months — if ever — before the pollution reached shores and fouled beaches. More recent analysis indicates that the spill could reach Japan within a month.

Of more immediate concern is the spill’s impact on maritime life where the Sanchi sank. Those waters are an important spawning ground for fish and crab, as well as a migratory pathway for marine animals, including three species of whale. This accident will further strain an area already polluted — the result of hundreds of ship collisions as well as runoff from industries on shore — and overfished as aquaculture there increased by 1,200 percent over the last three decades. With the annual fish catch in the Yellow Sea expanding from 0.2 to 2.2 million tons over 50 years, it is no surprise that 60 of 194 marine species are thought to be at risk of extinction.

There are no easy solutions to these problems. Overfishing will be difficult to check given rising incomes in China and the insatiable appetite for fish in Japan and South Korea. The density of shipping in those waters means that the risk of accidents will remain high. There are initiatives that could help, such as requiring double-hulled vessels or better traffic separation schemes, but since many of these accidents occur on what is technically the high sea — and thus not subject to jurisdiction other than that of the flag the ship flies — the answer is stricter implementation and enforcement by countries that are relaxed about such measures in the first place. They are called “flags of convenience” for a reason.

Mitigation is thus critical. Countries and shipping companies need to have up-to-date oil spill recovery plans. As this case indicates, however, no country can or should have to tackle these incidents alone; this rescue effort included Chinese, Japanese and South Korea ships. There are longstanding initiatives that address regional environmental issues but they have accomplished little. This should be a priority for Japan-China-South Korea cooperation in their trilateral framework.

Perhaps more important is renewed effort by Tokyo and Beijing in their high-level consultation on maritime affairs. The eight round of that dialogue was held in early December in Shanghai. There, they agreed on the importance of communication on maritime policies and laws, made progress on the air and sea liaison mechanism for the defense ministries, agreed to restart the “Japan-China Shipping Policy Forum” that addresses issues of “common concern” — precisely those affected by this accident — and reaffirmed the importance of a Japan-China Maritime Search and Rescue Agreement. Those accomplishments are almost identical to those of the seventh round of talks, held six months earlier in Fukuoka. The Sanchi sinking is a stark reminder of the consequences of delay and the need for renewed urgency in those talks.