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Editorial comment

The Red Sea is home to over 1200 different species of fish, 250 species of coral, and what is currently one of the most dangerous shipping lanes in the world. Since November 2023 the Houthis, operating out of Yemen with support from Iran, have been launching missile attacks at ships attempting to navigate the crossing to the Suez Canal via the Gulf of Aden. This has caused major disruption for ships trying to reach Europe and already over 35 merchant vessels have come under fire from missiles according to the UK Maritime Trade Organisation (UKMTO).

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The attacks come as a response to the ongoing conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas with the Houthis initially stating they were attacking Israeli-linked vessels. Despite this claim many vessels without any discernible ties to Israel have been fired upon or have been directly struck. In January, UKMTO reported that the Greek-owned supramax, Zografia, was struck as it was transiting about 122 km northwest of the Yemeni coast. Similarly, Eagle Bulk Shipping has seen one of its ultramax bulk carriers, Gibraltar Eagle, struck with an anti-ship missile. Neither vessel has any known affiliation with Israel.

As expected, the heightened level of danger has caused several shipping companies to rely on alternative shipping lanes; Maersk has announced it is altering its ME2 service route to divert via the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, with Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK Line), Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL) and Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha (K Line) all suspending services navigating via the Red Sea.

But what does this actually mean for international shipping? First and foremost it has sparked international concern for the lives of the seafarers who work aboard these vessels and are the most exposed to threat. In January, Sailors’ Society launched an urgent crisis appeal following the mounting concern over ship attacks and shipping companies are calling Sailors’ Society’s Crisis Response Network to request mental health and wellbeing support. Meanwhile, the IMO staged a meeting with shipping industry representatives at its London headquarters where IMO Secretary-General Arsenio Dominguez reiterated the message that seafarers are innocent victims in the volatile Red Sea situation. With a heightened risk to cargo and crew in the Red Sea, it is not surprising to see many ships are chartering different courses.

Naturally, this has had a detrimental impact on emissions output as a result of lengthened journeys, and on the overall cost of international shipping within the affected region. Data from Clarksons Research shows that Gulf of Aden ship arrivals were 65% lower than 2023 levels with bulker arrivals down by around 30%. Instead, ships are transiting via the Cape of Good Hope with bulker vessels calling in at 12% higher than in October 2023. For many vessels this diversion can add up to 10 extra days of travel time which results in greater CO2 emissions. Not to mention the additional financial burden incurred to the vessels’ owners and operators for the longer journey. There is also the additional factor that many of these ships are travelling to European markets and therefore will be heavily financially impacted by the new EU ETS that came into force at the start of 2024. These added costs not only make shipping to Europe less appealing but they have the potential to increase the price of goods transported via this route.

At present, the situation in the Red Sea does not appear to be relenting any time soon, and with the US’ and the UK’s counter missile and airstrikes against Houthi targets not deterring attacks, the Red Sea will likely remain a risky route to traverse for the time being.

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