ORDEAL OF THE CREW MEMBERS: RECORD NUMBER OF BUNKER SMUGGLING CASES IN TURKEY
In a bid to eradicate incidents of bunker smuggling, the Turkish Government is taking the strictest anti-smuggling measures pursuant to which the anti-smuggling units of the police force and customs officers often conduct cold-call inspections on vessels calling at Turkish ports. A Presidential Circular on the topic, published recently in the Official Gazette, serves as the reaffirmation of the Government’s determination for the continuity and increase of the anti-smuggling measures against the crime of bunker smuggling.
These measures were already in force and being implemented in the strictest manner even before the circular was published although now that the circular has been published in the Official Gazette, we expect an increase in the number of the uninformed inspections on vessels and criminal investigations against crew members. During these inspections the inspectors also conduct bunker surveys on the vessels’ fuel tanks to determine the quantity of the bunkers ROB and should there be a discrepancy between the survey results and the figures specified on the vessel documents, the matter is reported to the Public Prosecutor who commences an administrative inquiry or a criminal investigation mostly against the master and the chief engineer of the vessel.
The new circular stipulates that a board of ministers is being established to lead the struggle against bunker smuggling and ensure a healthy coordination between different state institutions. The board will consist of the Ministers of Commerce, Energy and Natural Resources, Internal Affairs and Industry and Technology. An article under the circular also asserts that the Harbour Master Offices and the Coastal Safety will also provide utmost technical support for the operations carried out on board or against the vessels. When these articles are read together and the circular is assessed thoroughly, it becomes evident that the frequency of the inspections on the vessels will increase and the inspectors will be particularly concerned with the vessels’ compliance with the bunker related regulations. Therefore, it is essential for the vessel owners and the crew members to implement measures to ensure compliance with the related regulations and avoid any bunker related problems. We set out below a brief compliance check list that can be adopted before a vessel calls at a Turkish port.
Compliance Check List
1. Has the chief engineer conducted an “actual” bunker survey prior to the Vessel’s arrival at the Turkish Port?
Vessels are generally expected to declare the quantity of the bunkers on board to the relevant Turkish port authority before calling at a Turkish port. Certain vessels make declarations through their agents and some of them submit the relevant vessel documents directly to the inspectors boarding the vessel upon her arrival to the port. In either case it should be kept in mind that if the customs officers decide to conduct an inspection on board the vessel they will most likely conduct an actual bunker survey by sounding the bunker tanks. Therefore, making declarations on the basis of the electronic systems (without conducting an actual bunker survey with the sounding pipes) revealing information about the vessel’s daily bunker consumption is not recommended. This is because in most cases the results of the actual bunker surveys conducted with a sounding pipe and the figures obtained from the electronic systems contradict with one another and this discrepancy leads the inspectors to consider the possibility of an intentional misdeclaration and report the incident to the Public Prosecutor for the commencement of a criminal investigation.
2. Has the declarations made to the Turkish authorities relied on a recently conducted bunker survey?
The most ideal way to proceed would be to conduct an actual bunker survey after the vessel’s berthing at the port and declare it to the Turkish authorities. Nevertheless, in most cases vessels are expected to make declarations in advance of their arrival or the inspectors arrive on board without giving the chief engineers sufficient time to conduct an actual survey. It is of utmost importance for any vessel calling at Turkish ports to ensure that the bunker quantity to be declared to the Turkish authorities relies on an actual bunker survey conducted immediately before the declaration is made and the exact date and hour of the survey is specified on the bunker survey report.
3. Has the master reviewed the methods used by the chief engineer in the bunker survey?
In most cases masters would be entirely oblivious to the technical or procedural flaws in the bunker surveys. They would sign the bunker survey reports or the other vessel documents attesting the remaining bunker quantity within the vessel’s tanks on the basis of the chief engineer’s verbal confirmation of having conducted the survey as per the due process. Our recommendation to the masters would be to sign the bunker survey reports and declare the same to the Turkish authorities only after receiving a written confirmation from the chief engineers attesting that the bunker quantity was determined on the basis of an actual survey conducted in compliance with proper procedure (e.g. taking into account the fluctuations in temperature, using the correct ASTM tables...). In most cases the masters, as the highest ranking officials on board, are also held liable for any discrepancy between the declared figures and the results of the inspectors’ surveys. Masters would be released from liability by demonstrating that they have not neglected their duty to supervise the lower ranking crew members and that the misdeclaration was not intentional.
We believe that if the owners pay heed to the above check list and ensure their compliance with the same their vessel and her crew would most probably avoid any bunker-related issue that may disrupt the vessel’s schedule and cause the commencement of a criminal investigation.
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