Guarding South Africa’s shipping lanes

7 June 2011

From a building high on the slopes of the Tygerberg, north-east of Cape Town, South Africa’s Centre for Sea Watch and Response (CSWR) keeps an eye on the hundreds of ships that pass around the Cape each day.

On a busy one, the centre might be using its sophisticated satellite technology to track as many as a thousand vessels, CSWR executive head Karl Otto told Sapa on Thursday.

Satellite tracking systems

With its Long-Range Identification and Tracking system (LRIT), launched 18 months ago, at the time the CSWR was established, his staff could “see” ships up to 1 850km off the South African coast.

The CSWR is a division of the SA Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa).

Otto said another satellite-based system, AIS (Automatic Identification System), allowed his staff – who man the centre around the clock, seven days a week – to access information relating to each vessel.

This included the size and type of vessel, where it had come from, where it was heading, and what cargo it was carrying.

“Over 90 percent of South Africa’s trade is carried to and from the country by sea; it is important we know what is going on,” Otto said.

Both systems rely on transponders, fitted to ships, which transmit information to orbiting satellites. This data is then transmitted to ground stations and fed through to the CSWR.

Responding to emergencies

Once there, it is displayed, via computer, on large screens. Software allows operators to forecast from the data, factoring in information such as weather, winds and currents.

This is useful in the event of the centre having to respond to an emergency, such as a sinking ship or an oil spill. The system can then be used to predict the likely drift of survivors, or slicks, allowing rescue or clean-up efforts to be focused on a particular area.

The maritime region South Africa monitors, in terms of its international obligations, is vast: 27.7-million square kilometres. It stretches from Antarctica in the south to the Kunene River in the north; and from 10 degrees west in the mid-Atlantic to a point well past Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.

Ships that pollute

Among the CSWR’s functions is watching for ships that pollute.

“Ships, at night, pump out dirty oil into the water. But by the time we see the slick, we don’t see the ship,” Otto said.

The centre was hoping to acquire more high-tech equipment – in the form of a synthetic aperture radar system – to catch the culprits. This would allow his centre’s operators to view, from satellite, the stretch of sea the ship was passing through and provide direct evidence of the offence.

Otto said a lack of long-range maritime aircraft restricted South Africa’s ability to directly monitor shipping.

“It’s a concern, yes, definitely,” he said, responding to a question on the matter.

It is understood that the only official aircraft available for long-range marine surveillance off the Cape coast are two ageing C130s.

Illegal fishing

On illegal fishing within South Africa’s economic exclusion zone, which stretches to 200 nautical miles offshore, Otto said this was certainly happening, but was unable to say to what extent. Many foreign fishing vessels were not fitted with transponders.

He said coastal radar had a range of about 50 nautical miles; beyond that, it was not possible to know what was happening if the area was not patrolled by ships or planes.

Speaking at a media briefing earlier on Thursday, Samsa CEO Tsietsi Mokhele said South Africa was the only country on the continent with the capacity to monitor shipping off its coast.

The centre’s focus was on maritime traffic management, accidents and incidents at sea, pollution and security.

“The CSWR represents a high concentration of maritime experience that can serve the nation,” he said.