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NEWS AND VIEWS DECEMBER 2008

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FISH POISONING

I am a member of the Nautical Institute and so receive their magazine "Seaways" every month. For those not familiar with this magazine, it generally contains articles discussing the more academic aspects of seafaring although this is not to suggest that the topics addressed are not important. In the December issue there is stuff about oil spill response, container lashing and port state control. In addition there is a monthly presentation called "MARS" the Marine Accident Reporting Scheme". I have discussed some of the items in this column before.

However, my attention was really caught by an item in this month's MARS, concerning food poisoning from eating fish, and having spent twenty years at sea and never having heard about this particular problem, I felt that it would be beneficial to those at sea, to present it to a wider readership.

MARS reports that a ship was bunkering in the Netherlands Antilles and that the crew who were not busy did a bit of fishing. catching, probably quite dramatically, a large barracuda, a predatory fish which can grow to about 40 kilos. They then decided that fresh fish for tea would be a good idea and most of the crew were then served bits of barracuda for their evening meal. Within hours they were suffering from vomiting and diarrhoea and by midnight the second mate who had not eaten the fish was radioing for medical assistance. The ship headed for Puerto Rico but before it got there the five worst hit crew members, including the master, were evacuated by helicopter. On arrival a further 18 crew members were taken ashore, all being subsequently repatriated.

The culprit was a poison sometimes carried by reef fish called ciguatoxin, known as CTX. The quantities carried are minute and therefore are not readily detected. The poison is also heat and cold resistant and so is not degraded by a freezing or cooking, and if one is poisoned in this way the crippling effects can last a lifetime.

There is a paper on the subject which can be found at www.mdpi.com/1660-3397/6/3/456/pdf . I have read it, and it contains a list of the most "dangerous" species. Most of them seem to be fish that eat other fish, including grouper. There is a suggestion that one should not eat reef fish larger than 3 kilos, or possibly 1.5 kilos depending on which expert you believe. But at the very least one should be cautious before eating fish caught in tropical shallow waters.

PIRATES OF THE GULF OF ADEN

Within 24 hours of me writing last month that the pirate problem might be getting to be under control they managed to hijack the Sirius Star one of the largest crude carriers in the world. It has apparently joined the fleet anchored at or adjacent to the pirate's base port, with another 15 ships, one of which is carrying a load of tanks and other military equipment.

The increase in the number of warships from a number of countries does not seem to have reduced the problem, possibly, if the press are to be believed, because there are just not enough of them, and after last month's moderate success by a British ship, the sinking of a fishing boat by an Indian warship which apparently still had the Thai fishermen on board must have created an air of caution amongst the captains of the fleet.

Perhaps it is time to consider a convoy system. If it worked against submarines then it might work against former fishing vessels. There is also a debate as to whether the ships should be armed. But one of the problems is that ship-owners seldom owe any allegiance to any specific nation. They flag their ships with what-ever nation will give them the best deal with the minimum of interference and they crew them with men and women of virtually any nationality that can provide seafarers. This in turn makes the task of the warships more difficult, since they are unable to identify with any particular vessels. Back in the old days the British army used to put a company of soldiers with rifles onto British ships going between Hong Kong and Shanghai apparently with great effect. But even if responsible countries wished to do that, which ships would they man? It would appear that this problem will only be solved when there is greater political stability in the horn of Africa. 

OIL RIG CANCELLATIONS

It has been reported recently that the construction of several mobile units have been cancelled, some times on the basis of financial difficulties on the parts of the companies who have ordered the rigs, and that there have been ship cancellations and production difficulties on the basis of financial difficulties at the yards. Finance for newbuildings is an integral part of the process which is not always obvious to the casual observer. Doubtless there are stage payments, but during the construction as well as having the pay their workforce and for raw materials they also have to pay for the equipment which is supplied to them.

To make a profit from this in a difficult financial environment requires some skill, and in a changing world there is no doubt that many organisation must be pleased to be able to terminate contracts in these strange times. An alternative approach is being taken by an American shipyard, which is building ships and then auctioning them on the internet. The current offerings are a couple of 4,000 bhp platform ships.

007

Concurrently with the release of the latest James Bond film, the Quantum of Solace, the DVD people as usual repackaged all the old films going right back to the first "Dr No". On a visit to London at about that time while my wife was on a visit to Mark& Spencer's in Oxford St I wandered into HMV on the other side of the street and browsed through the current offerings. I picked up a copy of the second film "From Russia with Love" and on turning it over was amazed to see myself in one of the pictures on the back. Actually you would not know it was me without prior information, but it took me back to my earliest well paid marine job. Just after I had got my second mate's I and a friend got jobs as drivers of the speed boats which chased the hero in the finale of the film. I was a back-up in case one of the other drivers went sick, so I was given the job of firing a Schmeizer at the Bond, then of course played by Sean Connery.

The stunt man on the bow of our boat fired the machine gun which in the film punctured the petrol drums ( you would have to have seen the film to know what I am talking about) on the hero's boat, and so was briefly important. Of course I bought the DVD. The scenes were filmed in the islands to the west of Crinan at the end of the canal, and we spend a delightful three weeks doing our stuff. Memorably on one day we went out to find that some-one had anchored a yacht in a place which would eventually be in shot. We were dispatched to ask the guy to move and so off we went and eased alongside him, three of us dressed in black and two of us carrying machine guns. The yachtsman was unfazed, and refused to move, causing us to change the location for the work.

There was also a puffer still running through the canal carrying "Stags Breath", and a bunch of girls from Glasgow Art College doing summer work as waitresses at the Crinan Hotel, a potentially exciting combination you might think- but enough of this trip down memory lane!!

CHARITY

There are people going through hard times all over the world, many of them being worthy of our support and as a consequence charities compete for our money. So now, at Christmas which is a time for people to give presents to others, I presume copying the three kings of Christian mythology, we decide whether to give some cash to the victims of some tragedy in the world.

Every year since I became the managing director of a moderately successful company in Aberdeen, up to the time of my retirement, I gave 500 to a charity supporting people who were suffering extreme distress in some part of the world. There has been no lack of candidates, due to failures on the parts of governments, particularly in Africa and natural disasters particularly in the East.

This year for the second time I am going contribute to the fund which is assisting the people of Bhopal in India. We are coming to regard India as being a civilised country, probably because we meet educated intelligent Indians in our work, and great people they are, but we should not forget that there are millions living in poverty there, and apparently at least 20 millions who do not have access to fresh water. But Bhopal is exceptional even in a country where many are in distress. In 1984 the Union Carbide chemical works in the city blew up, enveloping the homes of 100,000 people in a lethal gas cloud. What medical assistance they received was quickly terminated, and over the following 25 years it has become evident that the water table is so badly contaminated with chemicals, that those who are forced to drink and bath in it suffer from life threatening diseases. I could go on. Union Carbide is owned by Dow Chemicals, but they refuse to take responsibility, because, according to their website, it would have an adverse effect on their share price. You could not make it up. Meanwhile the Indian government considers that it is a problem for the local government, and the local government  does nothing.

If you are wondering to whom you might make a worthwhile gift this Christmas go to www.bhopal.org

Victor Gibson. December 2008.

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