Last week’s incident in which a drone attack to the ‘Mercer Street’ left two of its crew dead proves the paramount need of Maritime Security.  Similar to any industry today, the maritime industry is no less dynamic and pioneering. In recent years the industry has witnessed ground-breaking innovative changes with more focus on the nascent Maritime Security sphere.

Ever since 2010, Sri Lanka’s approach to global maritime security could be characterised as being more assertive. Following the cessation of the war, Sri Lanka, specifically the port of Galle has been functioning as a hub for operations pertaining to the logistical solutions offered to a number of international shipping lines. Through this lucrative avenue, Sri Lanka has fulfilled one of the crucial elements in its post-war transformative objective in being considered as a relevant and credible player in the region.

Speaking to industry experts from CASA provides an insight into the dynamics of the Private Maritime Security Operations (PMSC) in Sri Lanka.   

Q: What is the preamble to the inception of this industry in Sri Lanka?

The country of Somalia became birthplace of the new age of piracy after the collapse of the government in 1991, fierce civil war, and the birth of the inefficient new government. Set on a strategic point on the Horn of Africa, Somalian-fisherman and ex-militia begun to raid the shipping lanes in the narrow sea channel known as The Gulf of Aden. These attacks created a massive economic impact, as international military fleet patrol these waters daily.

With the emergence of piracy at sea off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden, we have expanded our business portfolio to provide comprehensive maritime security solutions to vessels transiting high risk areas (HRA) in the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The Ministry of Defence, Sri Lanka, has authorised the Global Private Maritime Security Companies to provide maritime security services through their appointed respective shipping agents to handle embarkation / disembarkation of armed maritime security teams from the Port of Galle, Sri Lanka.

BRIDGE: What is the significance in opting for Galle?

The globally recognized Private Maritime Security Companies has opted for Galle as the perfect location East of the HRA, enabling ships to get their weapons and sea marshals off or on depending on the route the vessels are taking.

BRIDGE: What are the attractive offers provided by SL?

Approximately twenty five local shipping agents represent a number of globally recognized private maritime security companies and these foreign private maritime security companies obtain contracts from ship owners to provide the security guards for the ships, while we the agents provide the logistic facilities in terms of Land to Sea (vice-a-versa) transfers, Air Port Transfers, Liaising with the Sri Lanka Navy for the storage of the weapons & equipment in the Naval Armory, Accommodation etc.,

The Weapons and the Sea Marshals are owned by private maritime security companies who are registered with the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

BRIDGE: How has the country benefitted from this category?

Essentially the demand continues to generate foreign exchange with a significant growth spurt economically. It has also created niche industries due to the indirect involvement of hotels and transporters.

While initial preference was granted to European security marshals, the potential for our own ex-militia personnel has grown throughout the years. Further the government approved tertiary educational institutions offering programs in subjects pertaining to maritime security on par with international standards has enabled civilians to be trained in the field, providing ample opportunities for employment.

BRIDGE: What are the volumes generated since inception?

At its peak from 2010 to 2016, we had unprecedented volumes of 900 vessel calls a month which never existed in the port of Galle. Yet there was a significant drop in volume despite the increase in demand due to the floating armories that are sporadically and haphazardly set up in the ocean and pose a threat to a more ethical functionality.

BRIDGE: What caused the shift?

Due to the beefing up of security measures in the international HRA waters, the impact through piracy drastically declined, yet the demand for security continues to rise despite the reduction of PMSC operations.

Further, the mushrooming effect of the floating armories poses a threat to what we offer as an authentic service.

The clients should realize that the floating armories are not a practical alternative despite the reduced cost as the unethical and severe inhumane malpractices associated with such is heavily unregulated with these contraptions gaining notoriety as rampant infectious zones. Therefore the onus is on the shipping company to choose wisely.

BRIDGE: How has pandemic impacted the local industry and what are SL’s USPs?

Charting through stormy seas within the context of the ‘new world’ has not been an easy feat but due to the high demand associated with the PMSC industry to SL, the Navy took the initiative to follow the government directives to provide uninterrupted service in Galle without any risk of infection to all concerned.

This timely intervention was instrumental in generating vital foreign exchange to the country when all the other avenues were impeded. Revenue generation persisted uninterrupted in addition to the increase in service opportunities for local sea marshals due to the implementation of travel bans in several other countries.

Moreover, we have been commended as one of the very few locations that provides a much needed respite for sea marshals as most are restricted within the confines of the ship for several months. Due to the pandemic, the situation has exacerbated for sea marshals as many ports have banned them from disembarking and visiting their loved ones but due to the stringent precautionary measures implemented by our Health Departments it has been possible to disembark without the danger of transmission even during the height of the government imposed lockdown as the industry only paused briefly, commencing operations within a matter of days.

This was made possible by mainly the Navy and other authorities who spearheaded the initiative to come up with a SOP regulation guideline inculcating heavy involvement, monitoring and supervision from their end to ensure a framework was set up to do these Sea Marshal embarkations and disembarkations in a safe and secure manner. Incidentally, a strict protocol is in motion if someone is tested positive for Covid-19. They have been granted authorization to follow the measures accordingly within a bio bubble concept in order to curb the community transmission.  Due to the effectiveness of the process, the work has continued without disruption enabling the industry to flourish and continue unabated.

BRIDGE: What are the concerns raised during this period?

The threat to the industry which is based mainly on cost is felt profoundly as the SOP has altered drastically and the additional safety methods such as PPE, sanitation, usage of multiple vehicles and rooms as its imperative to maintain the one meter distance when transporting and lay overs.

At the initial stages of the pandemic we were at a critical juncture as the shipping community initiative required the quarantine centers for the SL Sea Marshals to be managed by the Navy but due to priorities on recruitment, they had to exit the facility. Thereafter, the shipping community took the initiative and arranged the quarantining of SL sea marshals at an affordable, and economical cost. ‘

While many would value safety above cost, especially during these uncertain times when health is of immense value, we face challenges by low cost, low budget floating armories which are set up sporadically without proper health protocols.

The clincher in terms of USPs is the unparalleled location as there is no other alternative East of the HRA where it’s safer for sea marshals to sign off if it’s an East bound vessel or sign on if it’s a West bound vessel with their weapons and ammunition kits.

Aptly called the pearl of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka possesses a relatively battle-hardened navy, specifically in the sphere of asymmetric maritime warfare. The armoury is professionally handled by the government under the Sri Lanka Navy ensuring the safety of the citizens and the regional countries.

Additionally, the logistical facilities provided for the sea marshals outrivals  the rest from the villas to transport to the repatriation opportunities as Sri Lanka per se is a hub, making overseas travel easy as the flights are connected to any location in the world.

Moreover the USP during the pandemic is exemplary leaving no room for failure, success rates to date handling the sea marshals in a superior manner ensuring the safety of all concerned. Covid 19 task force rules followed strictly by the Ministry of Health and the SL Navy in a humane, responsible way.

BRIDGE: Who does the industry owe its success to?

While there is multiple stake-holder involvement since inception for the industry to ‘sail smoothly’ (pun intended), there are a few governing bodies that deserve to be named individually; The Ministry of Health and all other ancillary and auxiliary services, Sri Lanka Navy, hotel providers and transporters especially those who stepped in at crucial moments, and the Ceylon Association of Shipping Agents (CASA). Manpower companies providing the sea marshals and others who continue to render their unstinted support to make this initiative a resounding success for Sri Lanka.

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About Rochelle Gunaratne

I believe that everyone has a story to tell and in turn, I love listening to those stories, attempting to paint a picture to my readers with my words. I may not be an artist or painter, but I believe words can create powerful images in ones mind and it is how we share our stories with others.
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