As the world’s economies reeled in the midst of the global downturn last year, Gibraltar took a different turn: where other countries were reporting rising deficits, the Rock came back with 5% growth in the financial year ending March 31, 2010. Shipping has played a key part in that economic resilience together with other key sectors including financial services, e-gaming and tourism. The port, Chief Minister Peter Caruana said earlier this year, represents “major engine of our growing economy.”
Gibraltar, the main bunkering port in the western Mediterranean, supplied record volumes of fuel last year, while other areas of maritime business reported good results too. The downturn in the freight markets, for instance, kept Gibraltar’s specialist lawyers busy with admiralty cases, with many owners capitalising on Gibraltar’s reputation for resolving complex cases swiftly and efficiently.
The Gibraltar ship register also continued to improve on its already-enviable reputation as a quality register, and has now set its eye on the market for mega yachts.
In recent years, the Gibraltar Government has targeted significant investment in the maritime sector, reflecting its growing importance in Gibraltar’s economy.
In the port, the shift from a cumbersome government department to a leaner, more flexible and commercially-focused Gibraltar Port Authority was finalised last year with a new staff agreement. There are still issues to be ironed out – as evidenced by recent labour unrest – but in broad terms, the shift has opened the way for important organisational changes to improve staff prospects and, by extension, the efficient running of the port.
A new vessel traffic monitoring system has been installed and will enable tight control over vessel movements in Gibraltar waters. The port has also raised its tariffs whilst maintaining its competitive advantage. The tariff revision combined with strong performances, accommodating arrested vessels, ship-to-ship transfers and bunkering saw income move from £2m in 2008-09 to £5.1m in 2009-10, with recurrent expenditure at £3.4m.
Bunkering, the mainstay of port business here, proved resilient in the face of the global economic slowdown last year, with suppliers delivering record volumes. Operators in Gibraltar delivered nearly 4.7m tonnes of bunker fuel during 2009, a sharp 12% increase from the 4.2m tonnes delivered in 2008.
Now, with neighbouring ports in Algeciras and Tangier toughening the competition in this region, port managers on the Rock are planning a major change to the sector in order to increase capacity. The Government of Gibraltar has confirmed plans to allow ships to refuel at anchorage on the east side of the Rock, a move that will enable suppliers to further boost volumes. “It is the Government’s intention, subject to the outcome of any Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] that may be required, to allow operations under strictly-controlled conditions to place at the Eastern anchorage site,” said Joe Holliday, minister for enterprise, development, technology and transport.
Gibraltar currently has 12 vessel slots on the west side of the Rock. Opening up the east side anchorage for bunkering operations will add up to ten more slots, depending on vessel size.
“In simple terms, opening up the east side will allow us to service more ships,” Captain Peter Hall, the Captain of the Port of Gibraltar, told the maritime newspaper Lloyd’s List in October. “We already have a competitive edge in terms of cost. If we can increase capacity and improve the service we can offer, then that will help us to maintain that edge.”
An EIA should be completed by the end of this year, taking into account the ecology of the area and factors such as weather and tidal movements. Initially operations will only be allowed during daylight and under suitable weather conditions. Bunkering operation anywhere in Gibraltar waters can be suspended by the port if weather conditions are bad. Some trials have already been carried out and further ones are planned before routine operations start. Each vessel is equipped with counter-pollution equipment and an oil pollution response vessel is stationed nearby throughout.
The start of bunkering operations on the east side is dependent on the installation of the Gibraltar port’s new vessel traffic monitoring system, which will enable the Gibraltar Port Authority to closely monitor and control all vessel movement in Gibraltar waters. The VTS will enable port managers to better control vessels within Gibraltar waters but also, because of its extended range, to coordinate arrivals to maximise the use of limited bunkering slots.
“It will give us complete coverage around the Rock and also lifts the horizon for arriving vessels,” Capt Hall said. “That will allow us to plan more efficiently.”
An integrated web-based system will also enable the electronic transfer of vessel data from ships and agents to the port authority itself, further reducing the administrative workload.