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It does not take a large spill to cause a large problem.

The response to maritime environmental emergencies: A multi-sectoral approach

Australia has a high dependence on its maritime industries for continued prosperity. During 2014/15, there were over 30,000 ship arrivals to Australian ports, placing Australia as the fifth largest shipping nation. In addition, Australia has a significant offshore petroleum industry, producing both oil and gas, which is critical to the countries energy security. While highly important to economic growth, these industries do present significant risks to the natural environment and community in not managed correctly.

The maritime and offshore petroleum industries are highly regulated, through a mixture of international conventions and domestic legislation. However as had been demonstrated in the past, safety regimes can fail and the impacts of large oil and chemical spills can be long-lasting. Australia, through the National Plan for Maritime Environmental Emergencies (‘the National Plan’), maintains a national system to respond and recover from these events when they happen.

History of the national plan

The Liberian-flagged tanker Oceanic Grandeur struck an uncharted rock in the Torres Strait, northern Great Barrier Reef on 3 March 1970. Eight of the fifteen cargo tanks were ruptured on impact and an estimated 1100-1400m3 of crude oil was spilled. The response operation, conducted by the Queensland Government, was the first of its kind conducted in Australia. The effects of the incident are not well understood, but it is generally accepted that significant economic damage occurred to the pearl industry of the Torres Strait as a result.

This incident led directly to the development and implementation of the original National Plan for the Combat of the Pollution of the Sea by Oil in 1973. The National Plan was conceived as a national arrangement to coordinate the resources of all relevant stakeholders, government and industry, to manage oil spill incidents and from inception included national equipment stockpiles and common approaches to management and training. The National Plan was later extended to include Noxious and Hazardous Substances in 1998.

Figure 1 – Australian Risk Profile 2011 (DNV 2011).

Figure 1 – Australian Risk Profile 2011 (DNV 2011).

The national maritime emergency response arrangements

Based on the National Plan approach, the National Maritime Emergency Response Arrangements (NMERA) came into effect in 2008 and set out nationally agreed arrangements for the management of maritime casualties. These arrangements include the establishment of national legislation to support the response to maritime casualties, a national emergency towage capability and integrated management between governments and the shipping, port and salvage industries.

A unique feature of the NMERA is the designation of the Maritime Emergency Response Commander (MERCOM), within the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), as the national decision maker responsible for coordinating the emergency response to maritime casualties. While the States and Northern Territory have responsibility for the management of maritime casualties within their respective jurisdictions, the MERCOM has authority to intervene where it is deemed to be in the national interest to do so. This is a direct response to incidents such as the sinking of the tanker Presitge (Spain) where local interests overrode the effective management of the casualty resulting in its loss and a 77,000m3 oil spill impacting three countries – Spain, Portugal and France.

Preparing for maritime environmental emergencies

Maritime environmental emergencies are events that have the potential to cause harm to the marine environment and/or community from the release of oil or hazardous and noxious substance from either shipping or offshore petroleum activities. Maritime environmental emergencies have a number of synergies with land based disasters, however there are some significant differences which affect their management and need to be considered in planning. These include:

  • Marine environment – the marine environment presents a range of challenges, both logistic and operational, that need to be overcome implement an effective response operation. Heavy sea and weather conditions, in particular, can make operations particularly hazardous.
  • International context – the marine environment does not respect jurisdiction. In addition to the potential to cross internal Australian boundaries, oil spills can impact across international boundaries (e.g. Montara oil spill, Timor Sea, 2009). This creates significant issues in resource allocation, selection of response strategies and coordination.
  • Commercial interests – the arrangements and knowledge to manage maritime casualties have been established over centuries and are largely delivered by the private sector. Commercial interest increases the complexity of the event and needs to be well understood and managed for effective resolution of an incident.
  • Politicisation of the response – Almost unique to oil spill incidents, is the high level of politicisation of the response operations. In addition to the natural concerns of local communities who are impacted by these events and their high profile, oil spills are often used by a range on groups to pursue a range of related issues. This high level of scrutiny presents significant challenges in managing public communications.

Review of the national plan

The National Plan and NMERA were subject to a comprehensive review in 2011/12. The Review was managed by a stakeholder group formed specifically for the purpose of reviewing the current arrangements and agreeing the future pathway. The Review was underpinned by two projects, funded by AMSA:

  • National risk assessment (Det Norske Veritas, 2011).
  • National capability assessment (AMSA, 2012).

National risk assessment

The risk assessment modelled the marine pollution threat to the Australian coastline over a ten year timeframe, breaking the coastline into 120 regions and sub-regions. The risk assessment identified a significant change in the national risk profile (Figure 1), with increased risk is six regions – northern Queensland, central and eastern Victoria, eastern South Australia, the north-west of Australia, the northern territory and Australia’s offshore areas. The increased risk was driven to a large degree by increased minerals export and expansion of the offshore petroleum industry.

The risk assessment also identified trends within the various sectors of the maritime industry to determine how the risk profile could be expected to change over time (Figure 2). The model predicted significant increases in shipping risk by 2020 -91% for trading ships at sea and 141% for trading ships at port. However it also predicts a reduction in offshore petroleum risks associated with an overall decrease in crude oil production.

Capability review

Phase 2 of the Review assessed the adequacy of the National Plan and NMERA to provide an effective response to maritime casualty and marine pollution incidents. The Capability Assessment considered: included a comprehensive literature review and analysis of best practice, considered international developments and involved consultation with over 90 stakeholders from Government and industry.

National plan for maritime environmental emergencies

The National Plan for Maritime Environmental Emergencies is the outcome of the 2011/12 Review. The National Plan incorporated a number of key changes:

  • Established a single response arrangement for the management of maritime casualty and marine pollution incidents.
  • Enhanced governance and stakeholder engagement.
  • Aligned maritime environmental emergencies with traditional emergency management arrangements.
  • Addressed a range of capability gaps.

These issues are discussed briefly below.


The central strength of the National Plan is the integration of a diverse group of stakeholders and interests into single agreed response arrangement. An important driver for this outcome is a national governance structure which provides accountability and a transparent process for stakeholders to engage in decision making around the national arrangements. Effective governance is achieved through:

Reporting to Australian Governments through the Council of Australian Governments arrangements.

  • The establishment of a National Plan Strategic Coordination Committee comprising the Australian and State and Northern Territory Governments to set policy direction and oversee the implementation of the National Plan.
  • Stakeholder engagement, through the formation of a Strategic Industry Advisory Committee.
  • Establishment of technical committees, comprising technical expertise from government and industry, to support strategic decision making, on matters as diverse as operating protocols, training and development, selection of response equipment etc.
  • Coordination structures within each State and the Northern Territory to implement the national arrangements at the regional and local level.

Integration into the Australian Emergency Management Arrangements

The National Plan has been historically been treated separate to the terrestrial emergencies. However this is no longer a viable approach. The National Plan has progressed integration with the Australian Emergency Management Arrangements as follows:

  • Formal recognition of the National Plan as a supporting arrangement to broader emergency management.
  • Adoption of AIIMS as the common incident management system.
  • A greater emphasis on community and their expectations in planning for maritime environmental emergencies.
  • Adoption of the comprehensive approach, encompassing the phases of prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.

Response Capability

National Equipment Stockpiles

The National Plan applies a tiered approach to the supply of response equipment, in that local and regional resources held within States and the Northern Territory and by individual companies are supplemented by nine national stockpiles managed by AMSA and a further industry stockpile managed by the Australian Marine Oil Spill Centre (AMOSC) on behalf of the oil industry. The national stockpiles have been redesigned and significantly upgraded since 2011 based on the following principles:

  • Equipment and stockpiles to be standardised across the national stockpiles. Standard technical specifications were designed and national procurement process conducted which are utilised across National Plan stakeholders.
  • The stockpile locations are based on a combination of risk and ease of logistics, particularly long haul transport and the provision of at least one stockpile positioned to enable international response.
  • The stockpiles locations to enable the supply of resources to each high or very high risk area within 24 hours by road transport.
  • Each stockpile to be supplemented by another stockpile within 48 hours by road transport.
MV Tycoon Incident, Christmas Island, January 2012: Beach Clean-up at Flying Fish Cove.

MV Tycoon Incident, Christmas Island, January 2012: Beach Clean-up at Flying Fish Cove.

Fixed Wing Aerial Dispersant Capability

The applications of oil spill dispersants, while controversial in the public realm, remain the most effective means of treating large oil spills. AMSA and the Australian Institute of Petroleum (through AMOSC) jointly fund a standing fixed wing aerial dispersant capability (FWADC). Based around agricultural spray aircraft capacity, six aircraft, capable of low level flying over water, are on permanent stand-by around Australia.

The FWADC is being integrated with capabilities held by State and Northern Territory fire services, in particular the command and control provided by air attack supervisors in the rural fire services. This capability was recently exercised for two days off the coast of Exmouth, Western Australia.

Hazardous and Noxious Substance Response

The response to HNS remains a complex issue for the National Plan. Unlike oil spills, there is no standard approach to chemical response at sea and it is further complicated by significant human health and safety issues. A three staged approach to the management of marine chemical spill incidents has been adopted by the National Plan:

  • Establishment of a marine chemical spill advisory service with an established hazardous material (HAZMAT) response agency (Level 1).
  • Establishment of deployable teams of HAZMAT to assess and conduct ‘first aid’ management of shipboard chemical incidents (Level 2).
  • Establishment of a response system to manage the releases of chemicals into the marine environment (Level 3).

The Level 1 and Level 2 capabilities are being implemented in partnership with the New South Wales Fire and Rescue Service.

National Response Team

The National Response Team (NRT) is a group of 64 response personnel drawn from the States and Northern Territory governments and the port industry that can be deployed in management or operational team leader roles in the event of a major pollution incident. The NRT has provided ‘surge’ support for Australian incidents since 1995. The NRT is supported by two specific programs:

  • A succession program, whereby AMSA provides targeted training to State and Northern Territory responders to maintain a pool of personnel that can fill NRT vacancies when they occur.
  • An exercise and training program for NRT members to maintain and develop the skills necessary to lead teams during major response operations.

The NRT has proven to be one of the major capabilities of the National Plan and has been deployed to all major recent incidents in Australia, as well deployment to the MSC Rena oil spillincident in New Zealand.

Training and exercising

In comparison to other emergency services, there is limited number of professional marine pollution responders. AMSA, for example, employs a small team of eleven specialists, while the majority of States and the Northern Territory have smaller teams again. The majority of response personnel are therefore employed for purposes other than marine pollution response.

The training of response personnel under the National Plan has, as a result, been developed to create a work force that can work interchangeably on a national basis, i.e. Victorian personnel can work in the Northern Territory, and vice versa. A nationally consistent training and exercising program has been developed to achieve this outcome.

Responsibilities for training under the National Plan can be summarised as follows:

  • AMOSC delivers training for the offshore petroleum industry in line with standards accepted internationally by the oil industry. This reflects the movement of staff within that industry between countries and regions.
  • AMSA is responsible for the delivery of incident management and senior executive training on behalf of the Australian, State and Northern Territory Governments.
  • The States and Northern Territory are responsible for the delivery of operational response training with their jurisdiction.

Governmental sector training at all levels is delivered under the AMSA Registered Training Organisation to competency standards defined within the Public Safety Training Package. The training utilises a mix of competencies developed for the wider emergency management sector and those developed specifically for marine pollution response.

National Exercise

Regular exercising forms an important component of the National Plan. Exercising occurs at all levels – state, local and facilities – with a major exercise being held nationally to test national arrangements and inter-operability. The national exercise is another example of the cooperative approach underpinning the National Plan. The exercise, as a matter of principle, is managed jointly between the Australian and State Governments and the oil industry, with a focus on having integrated incident management and operational response teams.

The most recent national exercise, Exercise Westwind, focused on an offshore petroleum incident off the coast of Exmouth, Western Australia. Responders for the exercise were drawn from the oil industry and governments, and included international responders.


Since 2012 there has been a fundamental shift in the management of maritime environmental emergencies in Australia, not the least of which is the formal integration of maritime salvage and marine pollution arrangements into a single response system and the leveraging of the broader emergency management sector. The new arrangements, and the substantial stakeholder support underpinning their implementation, will ensure the continued success of the National Plan in protecting Australia’s community and marine environment from marine pollution.

For more information, go to www.amsa.gov.au

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Jamie Storrie is Manager, Marine Environment Pollution Response, Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

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