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Waterfront tension over pilots' contracts

THE presence of a newcomer to WA’s port services industry has raised new tensions on the nation’s waterfronts, this time among the pilots who guide ships into harbour.

After winning a contract to supply pilotage services to Akzo Nobel’s Onslow Solar Salt facility earlier this year, multinational SGS has ruffled feathers among the piloting community by suggesting it was on the look out for other work in WA.

The Marine Pilots Association has taken the prospect of competition from SGS very seriously, claiming there was a growing threat to safety standards if the move accelerated a national push towards allocating common-use port pilotage services to different private contractors.

The pilots’ concerns centre on the possibility of several pilotage companies each working for different single customers in a port, instead of one company handling all the pilotage for a port (such as Fremantle or Geraldton) servicing many different customers.

The MPA claims Australia is the only first-world country to be entertaining the possibility of such a system in its larger ports.

Fremantle Pilots, which has provided exclusive pilotage services to the Fremantle Port Authority since 1994, believes common-use ports pilots contracted to different shippers will be too scared to report ships they deem unseaworthy for fear of losing a contract.

Ironically, the MPA supports a similar system at Dampier, which is one of Australia’s largest ports in terms of trade tonnage.

Rio Tinto has contracted Marine Services Australia to handle ships loading iron ore, salt and small product tankers, while Woodside employs pilots to handle Liquefied Natural Gas and Liquefied Petroleum Gas and condensate tankers, and the small general cargo vessels using Dampier’s “public” wharf.

SGS business manager Ross Amaril said the company would be assessing opportunities as they presented themselves and was looking to streamline port operations for its customers.

“We offer one point of contact for various surveys, such as draft surveys, and hold inspection, load mastering and stowage planning. Because SGS is in more than 145 countries we can offer our services to exporters all over the world,” Captain Amaril said.

MPA national president Alex Amos said pilotage in larger ports should remain a public and community safety service under the direct authority of government agencies and port safety requirements.

“There is no room for middle men and entre-preneurs to come into common-use ports. They are merely wanting to make a profit and this will mean pilots will be paid less or there’ll be cutbacks on safety or a forced increase in port charges,” Captain Amos said.

A WA Department for Planning and Infrastructure spokesperson maintained safety issues were being, and always would be, adequately covered in WA.

Pilots and companies have to demonstrate to the DPI all the requirements of the National Marine Safety Committee’s guidelines and are gazetted by the WA Shipping and Pilotage Act.

“Anyone coming into WA or who even wants to be appointed to a new port must go through the same requirements,” the spokes-person said.

Increased competition in the pilotage industry already has made life harder for long-serving players.

When Fremantle Pilots’ contract was due for renewal last year it found the FPA had put it out to open tender for the first time. Fremantle Pilots managing director Bob Hall said pilotage fees should not be open for tendering.

When it tendered for its latest FPA contract, Fremantle Pilots spent up big on overseas training and quality assurance on fatigue and safety management plans, but could not recoup costs because the FPA considered its price too high, Captain Hall said.

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