An Australian maritime lawyer is set to chair the long-awaited review of the 1989 Salvage Convention by the Comite Maritime International (CMI), a Belgium-based international NGO.
The review, which was requested by the International Salvage Union (ISU) and will take place in Buenos Aires in October, will canvass competing industry views in regards to escalating environmental issues, as well as concerns that the professional salvage industry is inadequately compensated for their environmental protection efforts.
"The ISU has called for the review on the basis that the salvage landscape has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, making the Convention out of date," said Stuart Hetherington, partner with Colin Biggers & Paisley and Chairman of the CMI's international working group and international sub-committee on the review of the 1989 Salvage Convention.
"The underlying aim of the Convention is to ensure that salvors receive appropriate rewards for protecting property and minimising environmental damage where there has been a shipping casualty. Ship and cargo owners, their insurers and governments, all recognise that adequate incentives to support a skilled and well-resourced professional salvage industry are crucial."
Hetherington said the most contentious issue was whether salvors should be entitled to an award for environmental salvage which is not limited to the value of the preserved assets.
"The salvage industry argues that the Convention does not properly reward them for protecting the environment, because the awards are generally capped at the value of the salved property and, in many cases, these assets are worth much less than the value of the work done," he said.
"And while the Convention provides scope for 'special compensation' to be awarded, the ISU points out that it is only a safety net which is limited to out-of-pocket expenses and is not geared to provide a profit."
The ISU has used the disastrous 2002 sinking of The Prestige oil tanker in Spanish waters as an example of why the Convention needs to allow salvage awards to better reflect liabilities from which ship-owners and their insurers have been spared.
In that incident, Spanish authorities prohibited any salvage from being carried out, giving rise to hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental claims.
Hetherington noted that while industry groups had negotiated alternative arrangements to address the Convention's limitations, the ISU was of the view that these were no longer adequate.
Possible outcomes of the review may include the drafting of a new Convention, or drafting a Protocol to the Convention.