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Seminar on the impact of search and rescue operations and the Polar Code on Antarctica

December 7, 2012

Seminar on the impact of search and rescue operations and the Polar Code on Antarctica
Punta Arenas, Chile,
7 December 2012
By Koji Sekimizu
Secretary-General, International Maritime Organization

Director, Rear Admirals, Ladies and gentlemen,
 
To hold a seminar here in Punta Arenas to look at aspects of maritime operations in the Antarctic is both timely and very appropriate from a geographical perspective.
 
The long coastline of this country ensures that Chile is intimately associated with maritime affairs and has helped to cement a distinguished maritime tradition here.
 
It is a tradition that carries responsibilities, and Chile has shown a keen willingness to shoulder those responsibilities and discharge them effectively. In this context, one thinks immediately of Chile’s world-renowned search and rescue service, administered by the Chilean Coast Guard and an integral part of the Chilean navy with around 1,500 personnel. Chile has taken responsibility for a huge search and rescue area that covers nearly 26.5 million square kilometres. This equates to an area of around five per cent of the earth’s surface – or, to put it another way, an area some thirty five times bigger than the country’s land mass.
 
In 2008, the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) Chile, received a certificate of commendation under the IMO Bravery Award scheme for its work in the multinational co operation and coordination involved in the successful search and rescue and anti pollution operations following the sinking of the cruise vessel Explorer, off the coast of Antarctica, in which 154 passengers and crew members were saved.
 
And, just last week, I had the honour to present the IMO Bravery Award to a rescue swimmer from the aerial detachment of the Chilean Navy for his part in rescuing the crew of a stricken motor launch.
 
Chile is also very active in working together with others. Chile has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with IMO for the provision of Technical Co-operation for Latin American countries. Under the terms of the MoU, Chile has offered, through its maritime authority, to help implement a technical co-operation project aimed at the establishment of MRCCs in all seven Central America countries. Over the last 12 months, SAR experts from Chile have actively supported technical co-operation activities in Central America under this MoU.
 
So ‘Chile’ and ‘search and rescue’ are words that are often linked. Indeed, it can be no co incidence that the IMO Sub-Committee on Radiocommunication and Search and Rescue (COMSAR) has once again unanimously re-elected Captain Carlos Salgado of Chile as its Chairman for 2013.
 
Search and rescue in the polar regions, both Arctic and Antarctic, hold special challenges. And it is a fact that, in both regions, both maritime and air traffic has increased sizably in recent years and this trend looks set to continue. As far as Antarctica is concerned, not only do ships and aircraft transport and support a growing number of scientists and researchers in the region, but the attraction of the area as a tourist destination is also growing.
 
The extent of sea-ice in Antarctica is decreasing and this results in easier access to the continent by ship. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the number of shipborne tourists in Antarctica has increased by 430 per cent in fourteen years and land based tourists by 757 per cent in ten years. The majority of the seaborne voyages are to the Antarctic Peninsula region where the open sea condition in the summer season makes those voyages feasible and safer. And, of course, parallel to the growth in tourism is a substantial increase in cruise and passenger vessels, some with large passenger capacities.
 
While search and rescue in the Antarctic region clearly poses unique problems, it is worth recalling the global and historical context within which today’s search and rescue infrastructure has been created.
 
The obligation of ships to go to the assistance of vessels in distress was enshrined both in tradition and in international treaties, such as the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) of 1974. But there was no international system covering search and rescue operations until the adoption of the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (the SAR Convention) in 1979.
 
A principal aim of the Convention was to develop an international SAR plan, so that, no matter where an accident might occur, the rescue operation could be coordinated by a bona fide SAR organization and, whenever necessary, through co-operation between neighbouring SAR bodies.
 
To achieve this, Parties are encouraged to enter into SAR agreements with neighbouring States involving the establishment of SAR regions, the pooling of facilities, establishment of common procedures, training and liaison visits. The Convention states, for example, that Parties should take measures to expedite entry into their territorial waters of rescue units from other Parties.
Following adoption of the Convention, IMO organized seminars, workshops and conferences worldwide with the aim to define search and rescue regions for which coastal States would take responsibility. Provisional search and rescue plans for all Ocean and sea areas were completed when plans for the Indian Ocean were finalized, at a conference, in 1998.
 
In an associated development, maritime distress and safety communications entered a new era on 1 February 1999 with the full implementation of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) – an integrated communication system using satellite and terrestrial radiocommunications to ensure that, no matter where a ship in distress may be, its call for assistance can be properly received and acted upon.
 
The GMDSS was developed by IMO during 1980s, in close co-operation with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and other international organizations, notably the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) and the Cospas-Sarsat partners.
 
In March this year, a draft timetable for bringing the GMDSS up to date was agreed by the COMSAR Sub-Committee.
 
Evolving technology will continue to drive change in the maritime communications system. Indeed, one of the most pressing reasons why a review of GMDSS is needed, is that the system needs to be modernized to include new technologies.
Our plan envisages a fully comprehensive review of the GMDSS requirements, contained in SOLAS chapter IV (Radiocommunications), to take place over a three-year period (2013–2015), followed by a further two-year period (2015-2017) for the GMDSS modernization plan, to be succeeded by the development of legal instruments, the revision or development of relevant performance standards and an implementation period.
 
The review of the GMDSS will also look specifically into the communication requirements for the polar areas, including the use of more modern communication technologies. In recognition of the unique challenges of search and rescue in remote areas, particularly the polar regions, the review will require a considerable amount of work within IMO.
 
Among other things, this work has resulted in the development of circulars and guidance in the IAMSAR Manual. For example, the guidance material available on Mass Rescue Operations will be updated in the next edition of the IAMSAR manual. In this context, harmonization of aeronautical and maritime search and rescue is always important, but particularly so in the polar regions, where limited resources are always a cause for concern.
 
I mentioned earlier the unique difficulties faced by ships operating in the Arctic and Antarctic environments. Severe weather conditions and the relative lack of good charts, communication systems and other navigational aids all pose challenges for mariners. The remoteness of the areas makes rescue or clean-up operations difficult and costly. Cold temperatures may reduce the effectiveness of numerous components of the ship. When ice is present, it can impose additional loads on the hull and affect propulsion system.
 
With all this in mind, IMO is currently developing a draft International Code of Safety for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (the Polar Code), which would cover the full range of design, construction, equipment, operational, training, search and rescue and environmental protection matters relevant to ships operating in the inhospitable waters surrounding the two poles.
 
The Sub-Committee on Ship Design and Equipment has been tasked with coordinating the work, reporting to the Maritime Safety Committee and the Marine Environment Protection Committee.
 
The move to develop the Polar Code follows the adoption by the IMO Assembly, in 2009, of Guidelines for ships operating in polar waters, which address additional provisions deemed necessary for consideration beyond the existing requirements of the SOLAS and MARPOL Conventions, taking into account the special conditions of polar waters and to ensure adequate standards of maritime safety and pollution prevention are maintained. But, whereas the Guidelines are recommendatory, the IMO membership has agreed that the Polar Code would be a mandatory instrument, setting out internationally binding requirements appropriate for the severe environmental conditions of the polar areas beyond those already contained in existing instruments.
 
Ladies and gentlemen, it is tempting to see the increasing human presence in the Antarctic region as nothing more than a threat to one of the last remaining areas of pristine environment on the planet. Yet tourism can be – should be – a driving force for greater conservation in the region. Once they have experienced the sheer magnitude and the physical isolation of Antarctica, tourists will surely return home anxious to preserve the very elements that attracted them in the first place, and which make this wonderful place so precious.
 
Our job is to ensure that they can come to Antarctica without accidents, and that their presence is controlled and managed in such a way that their impact on the environment can be benign and kept to the absolute minimum. That may not be an easy task. But tourists and researchers will come, nevertheless. So, let them join our efforts and forces to protect Antarctic and Arctic regions. As Lars-Eirc Linblad, one of the pioneers of Antarctic tourism once said, “You cannot protect what you don’t know!”
 
Thank you.
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