One of the less-publicized COVID-related threats to the environment is the inadequate response to reports that almost 200,000 crew on cargo shipping vessels cannot go home despite completing their voyage. These cargo vessel crew are stuck onboard and cannot be relieved by a new crew due to widespread travel restrictions. Almost all world trade is shipped via these vessels, which when operating with fatigued crew increasingly risk collisions and other accidents, which can cause fuel spills, cargo lost overboard, and other significant harm to oceans and surrounding environments.
In the past, fatigued crew was reported as a contributing factor to the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills that devastated local marine, bird, and onshore wildlife and their habitats in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. Allowing crew to return home upon completion of service is also critical to protecting their health and the support they provide families and communities.
On May 5th, the International Maritime Organization issued recommended procedures to its member countries and the United Nations for safely changing cargo vessel crew during the COVID pandemic. Since then, numerous international organizations have issued alerts about the inaction and the on-going threats to these crew, including the UN Secretary-General, the International Labor Organization, Human Rights at Sea, and the International Transport Workers’ Federation.
This threat to crews and the environment is prevalent around the world, yet somewhat hidden from mainstream attention. WWF is joining the call on all countries to designate seafarers and other marine personnel as "key workers". We can help eliminate this social and environmental threat by contacting our local elected officials and asking them to take immediate action to ensure the safe changeover of crews.