SINGAPORE: One fish farm lost almost its entire Chinese New Year harvest, after a vessel collision off Johor on Tuesday (Jan 3) resulted in about 300 tonnes of oil spilling into the sea.
Now, Gills N’ Claws, which runs a fish farm north of Pulau Ubin, said it is already in talks with its lawyers and will consider taking legal action against the shipping companies in question.
“Our lawyers told us we can sue the ship owners for compensation,” said Gills N’ Claws’ CEO Steven Suresh. “But first we will ask them amicably how they plan to compensate us, and then see what they say.
“If they don’t want to compensate us, then we will have to take legal action.”
Oil slicked green mussels seen on a rope at Gills N' Claws fish farm. (Photo: Winnie Goh)
The company estimates its losses could run to as high as S$700,000. It saw the deaths of about 70 per cent of the fish meant to be sold in time for Chinese New Year, but the larger proportion of its losses come from having to change all the infrastructure that was ruined by the oil.
“Just redoing the infrastructure alone is going to cost us a bomb,” said Mr Suresh. “It’s easier for me to tear the whole thing down and build a new system than to clean up the oil.”
SHIP OWNERS LIABLE FOR COMPENSATION: LAWYERS
But how likely is it that they will be successful in recouping their losses? Lawyers Channel NewsAsia spoke to said that under Singapore law, these fish farms are eligible for compensation from the ship owners responsible for the spill.
“If the collision was caused by the fault or negligence of any of the ships involved, the fish farms would likely have a claim against the party at fault,” said K Murali Pany, managing partner of Joseph Tan Jude Benny LLP. “If the party does not offer payment, the fish farms will have to bring a claim in court, and a ship arrest to obtain security for their claims may also be possible.”
The Government can also take steps to penalise shipping companies for causing oil spills that affect Singapore, according to S Suressh, partner at Harry Elias Partnership and head of the Aviation and Shipping Practice Group. He said the master, agent and owner of the ship can be fined up to a maximum of S$1 million under the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea Act.
In a 1993 case involving accidental pollution, the fine imposed was about S$10,000. But penalties are much more severe in cases of deliberate pollution. “In 1996, a tanker dumped oil into the sea. The master was sentenced to three months' imprisonment and fined S$400,000. The ship’s owner and its agent were also fined S$400,000 each.”
He added that the fish farms looking to make a claim will have to take the matter up with the representatives of the owner of the vessel. There is also no fixed time frame for it to be resolved, as each case is different. “If matters cannot be resolved, then claimants can sue the owners, but this is rarely necessary as most claims of this nature are settled,” he said. “The ship probably has insurance coverage for this.”
FISH FARMS TAKING A WAIT-AND-SEE APPROACH
In the meantime, affected fish farms are still assessing their damage and taking a wait-and-see approach. President of the Fish Farmers’ Association Timothy Ng said they are still exploring their options and are currently having preliminary discussions. “But it is likely that we will need to make some claims,” he said.
It is also not easy to gauge the actual impact of the oil spill on his association’s members, he added. “There are a few farmers directly impacted, but for others … I heard from a farmer closer to the Changi side that they could see (the) oil coming.”
“So we will only know in a few weeks, when everything is settled, what the impact is on their farms.”
As of Friday (Jan 6), the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) has issued orders for 12 farms to suspend fish sales until food safety evaluations are complete.
Fish available in the market is safe for consumption, AVA added.
AVA officers take samples from a fish farm in Singapore for food safety tests. (Photo: AVA)
AVA has also been visiting coastal fish farms to ascertain and mitigate the situation, as well as assist in the clean-up. Oil-absorbent pads and canvas have been issued to 25 farmers near the site of the oil spill to help protect their fish stock.
An AVA officer helps a fish farm to soak up oil using oil absorbent pads. (Photo: AVA)
It added that while some farms said that about 250kg of fish have died, most of the farms in the same area did not report any, and that there is “minimal impact to supply”.
Additional reporting by Vanessa Lim.