Australia’s ports are changing shape to accommodate a new generation of super-size cargo ships and tankers while the growth of cruise shipping and increased security measures are also placing new demands on ports.
At the same time, climate change is bringing new challenges for port authorities, not just in forecast rising sea levels but related factors such as sedimentation.
For most of Australia’s history, there has been little overall planning and co-ordination of port activity in Australia, but that is changing as Australia becomes actively involved in the UN’s World Ports Sustainability Program as the ports come under new pressure.
More than 100 industry delegates are expected to attend the first national ports’ business and operational conference in Townsville on June 26-27, endorsing support for the city following the floods early this year that devastated the region.
Ports Australia chief executive Mike Gallacher says that while the association has run annual conferences for chief executives and senior management, the Townsville conference is aimed at middle management, which generally has to come to terms with what is a rapidly changing situation for ports.
“We have a far greater emphasis on sustainability in ports, and that’s not just environmental sustainability, but also social and economic sustainability,” he says.
“This conference will give ports a chance to see what other ports are doing. For example, at Newcastle and Port Hedland they’re using helicopters instead of boats to get pilots out to larger vessels before bringing them into ports, and other ports can find out what the advantages and the problems are with this development,’’ Gallacher says.
“Sustainability continues to grow, and that’s going to be one of the main themes at the conference.”
A presenter at the conference, Jason Sprott, the head of Sprott Planning, represented Ports Australia last year at a UN conference in Geneva on sustainability, where Australia signed up to the World Port Sustainability Program.
“There are 17 goals in the program, and Australian ports now realise that this is an important part of their future,” Sprott says.
“It also gives ports the opportunity to make sure that their programs are balanced, and they take into account the future of their workforce, how efficient they are, their interface with the community in which they operate, the sort of business opportunities they can be pursuing in the future.”
One major issue that Australian ports need to confront is the size of ships, which are getting larger for both cruise ships and cargo ships.
At the moment, Australian ports take container ships with a maximum of about 8500 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units, the basic container size), but in Europe, ships that can carry over 22,000 TEUs are being used.
“There is a debate in Australia about whether we could be able to have ships of that size here, but one thing that is certain is that cargo ships are going to be bigger than 8500 TEUs,” Gallacher says.
“That means bigger wharves and bigger and deeper channels to accommodate them. Cruise ships are getting bigger and bigger, and they’re going to need more terminal space as well.”
Cruising has been a rapidly growing industry in Australia. In 2007 there were 420 calls into Australian ports from cruise ships, but in the current financial year there will be about 1300 calls. The biggest cruise ships along the Australian coast can now carry about 3500 people and be up to 350 metres long.
Australian Cruise Association chief executive Jill Abel will tell the conference that ports need to form alliances with the tourist associations around them to maximise the value of cruise-ship visits.
“In the past, airports have been the main point of access for tourists to visit an area, but the fastest-growing arrivals point is now cruise,” she says.
“Some ports have put in new infrastructure specifically for cruise ships. When cruise shipping started picking up in Australia about 20 years ago they were generally accommodated on extra wharf space, which meant that people were getting out of a boat straight onto a wharf.
“Containers aren’t as picky as people, and a lot of ports now have specific berths for cruise ships where people can get off the boat and into a pleasant environment and then get straight on buses to take them somewhere local and just [have] easy access to whatever town they’re in,’’ Abel says.
“But what I’ll be emphasising to the port people is that they need to work closely with their local tourism people.”
Simon Mortensen, group executive for ports and navigation at consultancy DHI, says ports need to build the projected effects of climate change into their growth strategies.
“Most ports are built on estuaries and, as rainfall patterns change, then there could be a build-up in sedimentation at a port as the rivers that run into a port flow stronger, and that in turn can change the wave pattern,’’ he says.