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Misdeclared cargoes: reaching critical mass

Container lines close in on misleading cargo

Hapag-Lloyd, is the latest major carrier to National Cargo Bureau’s Hazcheck Detect to tackle undeclared dangerous shipments, potentially providing the critical mass the tool needs for industry-wide adoption

Concern is mounting over the scale and frequency of cargo-related accidents and fires on board container ships, particularly the latest generation of ultra large vessels. Many of these incidents are believed to have resulted from undeclared or mis-declared dangerous cargoes.

Marine insurers are particularly concerned because ships’ crews are neither trained nor equipped to fight the fierce under-deck blazes that can occur. Even assessing or gaining access to a container in an under-deck stack in heavy seas is virtually impossible.

No surprise then that such incidents have led to a series of major insurance claims, the constructive total loss of some ships, and sadly, on occasions, loss of life.

German container line, Hapag-Lloyd, is the latest major carrier to adopt artificial intelligence (AI) technology to tackle undeclared dangerous shipments, or outright declaration fraud. The company has adopted the National Cargo Bureau’s Hazcheck Detect cargo screening system, following similar moves by Maersk and ONE.

NCB’s Hazcheck Detect system scans cargo booking data and identifies potentially mis-declared consignment descriptions by spotting key words. Certain phrases are used to enable inefficient or unscrupulous shippers to get round surcharges imposed by carriers on potentially dangerous goods. The system can also detect changes to cargo bookings, declarations, Bills of Lading, and shipping instructions, in real time.

One example is the phrase ‘plant growth regulator’, a misnomer often used to disguise ‘ammonium nitrate’, a chemical commonly used in fertiliser and an oxidising agent in explosives. The substance is thought to have been the root cause of various incidents.

This is just one of many examples with which some dishonest cargo owners seek to buck the system. However, the data screening systems can now pick up on such descriptions and, as the systems develop, identify more and new dangers.

The AI-based systems are being adopted rapidly as loss prevention and cargo-related insurance claims relating to container vessels climb the agenda. However, although there are a number of different but similar systems available, container lines cannot share data, thereby risking anti-trust violations.

Insurers also point out that there is the added risk that these dangerous consignments may find their way onto secondary container lines whose owners are less vigilant. For their own reasons, others may choose not to adopt the cargo safety checks.

Hapag-Lloyd has had its own in-house system under development for a decade. First introduced in 2011, the carrier introduced Cargo Patrol. However, company executives claim that the combination of Hazcheck Detect and Cargo Patrol now provides a more robust risk prevention setup.

NCB President, Ian Lennard, commented: “Working with container lines like Hapag-Lloyd will help us to further develop the tool using machine learning and AI techniques to enhance the screening processes as part of our not-for-profit mission, Safety of Life and Cargo at Sea.”

Speaking for Hapag-Lloyd, Senior Director Dangerous Goods, Ken Rohlmann, declared: “We have been a strong advocate of this kind of screening approach for some time and are glad to be one of the first companies to adopt this new technology.”