Environmental Disaster Narrowly Averted: Learning from the Burning of the MV Fremantle Highway

On 25th July 2023, the car-carrying cargo ship MV Fremantle Highway caught fire off the coast of the Dutch island of Ameland. The ship was en route from Bremerhaven to Port Said (Egypt) with Singapore as its final destination. It was carrying approximately 3,000 vehicles, presumably destined for sale in Asia. As fuel, the ship was reportedly carrying 1,600 tons of heavy fuel oil and 200 tons of marine diesel oil. Should the ship have sunk or lost structural integrity, long-term environmental damage would have been caused to the Wadden Sea World Heritage Site. The heavy oil would have sunk to the bottom of the sea and would have taken decades to degrade. The marine diesel would have remained for longer on the surface and impacted severely on seabird populations, as well as harbour porpoises and seals (NABU). By way of comparison, the wrecking of the Pallas freight ship in October 1998 with 756 tonnes of oil on board, close to the island of Amrum at the Wadden Sea coast of Schleswig-Holstein, led to a 20-km long oil spill and the deaths of approximately 16,000 seabirds.

The damaged MV Freemantle Highway en route to the port of Eemshaven, photographed from the coast of Borkum, photo: S. Engler-Walsh.

In the case of the Fremantle Highway, an environmental disaster of similar magnitude was averted due to the quick and effective response of the relevant authorities in the Netherlands and Germany, aided by favourable mid-summer weather conditions. The ship was successfully towed to the Dutch port of Eemshaven where salvage operations have now been completed. Now that the risk of large-scale environmental disaster, has in this case been averted, it is time to reflect on what needs to change to ensure that this risk is minimised in the future. The Fremantle Highway was travelling along one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, known as Terschelling German-Bight Traffic Separation Scheme. Approximately 25,000 ships travel along this route every year (almost 70 ships per day) (WSV 2022, see Figures 1 and 2 below). The volume and intensity of shipping traffic is forecast to growth in coming years and decades. Indeed, the German maritime spatial plan adopted in 2021 took this continued increase in shipping traffic as a given and did not assess its environmental implications. All of this means we can expect a higher frequency of shipping accidents in the future, increasing the likelihood of large-scale pollution incidents. The Terschelling German-Bight route is furthermore located close to the protected Wadden Sea mudflats, sandbanks and islands in both Germany and the Netherlands. NABU, a leading German environmental NGO has consequently called for a repositioning of this shipping lane in order to reduce the risk of pollution incidents impacting the vulnerable Wadden Sea ecosystem.

Figure 1: Terschelling-German Bight Shipping Route in the North Sea (source: WSV Traffic Report 2021).

Figure 2: North Sea Shipping Flows, ships greater than 50m length (source: WSV Traffic Report 2021).

More broadly, we can ask if the public interest of shipping (in this case cars) from Europe to Asia outweighs the day-to-day environmental impact (carbon emissions) and risk of major pollution incidents. Who precisely benefits from shipping cars from Europe to Asia; cars that were likely assembled from parts produced in Asia? It is difficult to see how the private business interests of multinational car manufacturers (and the associated economic benefit) outweigh the environmental risks. Is the primary justification, the upholding a system of free market capitalism and a fear that restrictions on such global trade flows would lead to a loss in competitiveness for European (in this case, German) businesses? Is that what is at stake here? It is not unusual for international trade deals to include restrictions on certain goods due to differing environmental standards, but to date, the environmental risks associated with shipping transport receive insufficient consideration.

As we make the necessary transition to a post-growth economy, the current global economic model based on just-in-time production and global supply chains must be fundamentally questioned. It is high time that the protection of the Wadden Sea and other valuable ecosystems is given higher priority than the protection of particular unsustainable economic interests. The MV Fremantle Highway incident has significant implications for maritime spatial planning, nature conservation, shipping policy and indeed should have implications for international trade policy. It is time that lessons are learnt.

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