The grounding of the cargo ship Little Seyma off the coast of Mykonos island, two days before Christmas was merely small news for the Greek media, without causing particular interest or concern. The Turkish owned bulk carrier flying the Panamanian flag (one of the so-called convenience flags-meaning with inadequate safety standards), was thankfully carrying flour. Lacking essential mechanisms for predicting, preventing and responding to maritime accidents, and following the, unknown to-date, damage sustained, the vessel drifted ungoverned and was grounded on islet Tragonissi east of Mykonos. This shipwreck is the second grounding of a dry cargo vessel on the Mykonian coast in the last few years.  Let us contemplate what the impact would have been if this cargo ship were not loaded with flour but was one of the 10-12.000, sailing the Greek seas annually, carrying hazardous cargoes (crude oil or chemicals). There could have been a total destruction of the Aegean, with disastrous impact on marine life, the economy, tourism, fishing and public health.

In order to understand the scale of the potential impact, let’s remind ourselves of the crude oil carrier Exxon Valdez accident in 1989 in Alaska. Its’ grounding was in good weather conditions and the oil leak from one cargo hold alone (37.000 mt) resulted in the cleaning up expenses and compensations to over 6,5 billion US dollars.

The dense and uncontrolled traffic of commercial vessels in the Aegean in only 24 hours

According to recent research, 30 years later oil can still be traced in many coastal parts and on the sea bed and continues to cause serious environmental and economic repercussions. Although all the aforementioned tookplace in distant Alaska, let’s contemplate what would happen if a similar accident happened in the Aegean, with the thousands of islands and islets, the millions of habitants, the unique environmental importance and it being the heart of our tourist industry, which contributes more than 35 billion euros annually to the country’s GDP (contribution 18,6%).

Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation has, for almost 2 decades, been raising the alert on the danger of this constant threat that the Aegean faces, by submitting to political authorities well documented data and statistical risk assessments, as well as proposals for accident prevention and response. However, for decades now, as governments change, the lack of political will and the inability to understand the grave danger persists.

After the “AgiaZoni II” shipwreck on September 2017, the weaknesses and the great deficiencies of the maritime accident response mechanism are apparent. A small wreck that should have been totally manageable, with a comparatively small volume of refined (“light”) oil, anchored in calm weather conditions, just 2,5 miles away from the doorstep of the Ministry of Mercantile Marine & Island Policy, caused chaos on the Attica coastline and a huge, still unknown, cost to the state.

The Salamina coast after the AgiaZoni II shipwreck

The great effort made in the coastal cleaning, which was successful in the removal of visible pollutants, as well as the swift wreck removal, was something taking place in Greece for the first time and must be acknowledged. Nevertheless, this lack of an effective prediction, prevention and an accident response mechanism, which actually works in practice and not just exist on paper, remains a chronic government deficiency.

International experience shows that there exist numerous mechanisms for the prevention and response of maritime accidents which have been implemented for decades in many parts of the world. Their implementation bears a much lesser cost than that of responding to the consequences of a big accident. In the Aegean a complete mechanism must be applied that will consistof traffic separation zones, a traffic control system, a tug boat network, a ports of refuge network (i.e. safe locations where vessels can be towed for accident management) and other such measures.

However, before all this happens and before the next accident occurs, there are certain immediate solutions which can be implemented, such as the creation of a fully equipped Antipollution Station in the center of the Aegean, with at least one open seas tug that will be on 24 hour standby.

The danger of an accident in the Aegean, equivalent of that of tanker Prestige, is daily

If there was such an Antipollution Station, the very recent shipwreck could have been avoided, as well as 8 out of the 10 serious maritime accidents that happened during the last year in the Aegean. An open seas tug would be able to inhibit groundings and lead the vessels in ports of refuge where a leakage or a mechanical failure could be dealt with. It is worth mentioning that in such cases the towage cost rolls automatically over to the shipping company, incurring zero cost for the state.

The Little Seyma accident off Mykonos island is another warning for the constant dramatic danger the Aegean faces, as it is transited by vessels which, apart from simple cargoes, carry millions of tons of petrol and other hazardous cargoes (chemical or gas) daily. If the national authorities ignore this warning, then they will be fully responsible for the coming disaster that a serious marine accident may bring.

Thodoris Tsimpidis

Director – Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation