A comeback for the coast

Coastal shipping needs to shout louder about the benefits that it brings

By Michael Grey

The case for coastal shipping has never entirely gone away, even though cheap road haulage in so many countries has reduced what was once a sizeable flow of goods to something less significant. But the sea around most coasts has remained empty and ports are still available, while the roads are congested and complaints about traffic and its emissions multiply.

There are some signs that public sentiment and political will are beginning to move in favour of a greater use of short sea shipping to haul goods around the coasts, rather than automatically assuming that the truck is the most obvious mode of transport. There has, for instance, been a distinct change of tone in New Zealand, where the government has actively gone out of its way to promote coastal shipping for both bulk and container shipping. Ships have been acquired, sea carriers have been welcomed, and this change of policy is already making a difference, easing road congestion and bringing new life to some of the many ports that once flourished around these coasts. The new government in Australia is also showing a more positive view of coastal marine transport.

Japan, a country which is not dissimilar to New Zealand in topography, with difficult and congested road connections and mountainous terrain inland, is going further, with serious government money going into the development of economically viable and environmentally sustainable coastal tankers and dry cargo ships designed to boost trade between its ports. There are schemes for highly automated vessels already under way and prototypes being tested.

Coastal challenges

In most parts of the world, coastal ship[1]ping never entirely went away, but has tended to struggle, with elderly ships, insufficient capital for replacements and, in any reasonable assessment, too many disadvantages when compared with competing road haulage. To a coaster owner, it has seemed unfair that while the trucks moving into and out of the port do so without any charge, all the port dues are loaded on to the ship that will carry the goods to and from the sea. Similarly, the levels of bureaucracy, paperwork and procedures which are required to operate ships have been a burden and a cause of complaint for many years, with insufficient efforts being made to minimise these with modern technology and electronic data transfer.

Ports which have specialised in coastal trades also need investment. As with most other types of ship in recent years, scale economies have caused short sea ship owners to build bigger vessels, but that has meant that many ports cannot take these larger ships without dredging or other improvements which require capital. This can be justified by the fact that ships which reduce road journeys are economically desirable, environmentally useful and help to reduce road congestion. But a case invariably needs to be made for such investment to providers of finance and governments.

The case for coastal shipping has clearly been strengthened by the march of technology, not least in cargo handling, which means that a modern coaster can shift its cargo faster than ever, using shore side mobile machinery. The fleet overall may not be as modern as is found in the deep-sea trades, but there is a steady flow of new tonnage appearing, of advanced small ships, light on labour requirements and with the most modern, environmentally sustainable machinery. A number of short sea owners have even been equipping their ships with wind assistance and a capability to shut down generators in port to minimise emissions.

For coastal shipping to really grow and prosper it needs a strong message to be transmitted about its positive potential and to persuade more shippers to use it. It is, for instance, heartening to learn that x thousand tons of some bulk cargo has been shifted from A to B by sea – which has meant that y hundred journeys by road were not necessary. Coastal shipping can sell itself, but probably needs to shout rather more loudly.