“UNTOUCHABLE” SHIPPING COMPANY
The Philippine Star
05/16/2017

Sometimes, there are things that just linger in your subconscious, questions that are left unattended even if the solution seems so plain and simple. A case in point is that of Montenegro Shipping Lines, Inc., one of the oldest shipping operations in the country.

Established in 1978, Montenegro had grown to become a fleet of close to 50 passenger, roll-on roll-off, and cargo vessels operating comfortably within the Visayas area. In recent years, it had been gaining some notoriety for a growing number of incidents at sea.

In early March, a fire broke out aboard Montenegro’s “M/V Rina Hosanna.” Within a few days, another Montenegro vessel, the “M/V Divina Gracia,” ran aground off Batangas waters. Then in early April, the main engine of another Montenegro vessel, the “Oliva,” failed while at sea.

Many of the Montenegro vessels are known to be over 30 years old, but of more significance is the fact that only half of its owned ships are known to be in operation, and the rest plagued by some form of mechanical or engine defects and problems.


Early indications

How long ago has Montenegro Shipping been trying to cope with its problems is not clear, although a 2002 incident involving one of its ships might give an indication of the severity of its problems.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) records showed that on April 11, 2002, “M/V Maria Carmela,” which is owned also by Montenegro, was involved in a fatal incident that resulted into 39 deaths, six missing (and now presumed dead), and 371 survivors.

Fire apparently had broken out in the cargo hold of the vessel at around 7:30 in the morning of that day. The vessel burned for three days until it eventually sank near Pagbilao Island in the province of Quezon.

There are reports that as of to date, claims of some of the victims’ relatives have not been paid by Montenegro. Apparently, the insurance coverage on the vessel that had burned and sunk was not enough to settle the claims of all the victims.


No apparent action

Taking into consideration the unfinished business of Montenegro that has been dragging on for over a decade, it is difficult to understand how the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) has not done anything substantial to resolve the pending accident claims of the families’ victims.

MARINA is mandated, by virtue of Presidential Decree No. 474, to adopt and implement a practicable and coordinated Maritime Industry Development Program (MIDP) that would, among others, oversee the early replacement of obsolescent and uneconomic vessels and modernize and expand the Philippine merchant fleet.

More importantly, MARINA should provide for the effective supervision, regulation, and rationalization of the organizational management, ownership and operations of all water transport utilities and other maritime enterprises licensed in the country.

Clearly, MARINA’s role is to investigate at the very least the problems the financial and operational problems that ail Montenegro, and which pose a risk to the public’s safety. It’s difficult to understand why MARINA does not seem to take any interest in Montenegro’s problems.

Is MARINA under intense pressure from political personalities? Are the officials afraid of retribution from powerful groups who may be extending protection to the shipping company?


Incompetent government officials

Could it be that the officials are afraid of losing their cushy positions in this government agency, so much so that they would turn the other way to the more important task of protecting the interest of the riding public?

Perhaps, is it just the plain inertia of an incompetent bureaucratic regulatory agency. MARINA, after all, has not been actively seen as enforcing its mandate or even providing the public it serves with a program that would ensure it is doing its job.

How long are the passengers of Montenegro Lines going to suffer the ineptness of its management, and more importantly, the inaction of the government agency that has the responsibility of taking care of the Filipino public?


Horror journey

Imagine the horror of 264 passengers and 18 crew of “Oliva” when they had to drift at open sea for almost 10 hours in the black of night and in an area that is infamous for its strong swirling currents – just because the vessel’s main engine had given up.

The whole incident already sounds suspicious because of the possibility that the ship was allowed to leave port with its auxiliary engine already not working.

Was the permit to leave port given because it would take only an hour for the journey from Leyte to Surigao, and the MARINA official was “persuaded” that no possible problems could happen despite the fact that the auxiliary engine was not operating?


Culpability

Montenegro Shipping is largely responsible for making sure that all their vessels are worthy to set sail. The above incidents clearly demonstrate that there are serious problems affecting the overall ship management operations and safety standards of the company.

Because the vessels that encountered problems are over 30 years old, it is safe to say that the economics of maintaining old ships may be a big reason for the shipping company’s increasing vulnerability to accidents at sea.


What gives, MARINA?

All of these reasons should push MARINA to do a thorough evaluation of Montenegro Shipping, and its officials and personnel, and to push the company to come up with viable solutions to its problems.

The writing on the wall is becoming more apparent, and our government agency must see this as a reason to act urgently – before any serious sea mishap will again happen, especially now that the typhoon season is already approaching.

What more does MARINA need for it to take a more decisive drastic action against what many in the domestic shipping circle consider as “untouchable” shipping company?


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