Thwarting modern-day smugglers

A haul of smuggled arms are recovered at Ashdod
A haul of smuggled arms are recovered at Ashdod
Modern-day pirates use modern-day technology to smuggle goods through international ports
Modern-day pirates use modern-day technology to smuggle goods through international ports
The Maersk Antares and Olivia Maersk work the Tauranga Container Terminal early in 2017
The Maersk Antares and Olivia Maersk work the Tauranga Container Terminal early in 2017
Industry Database

Intelligence and collaboration key to port security, finds Iain MacIntyre

An attempt to smuggle an estimated 46 kilograms of cocaine into New Zealand via a 'sea chest' secreted in the rudder housing on the hull of the Maersk Antares last year drew focus on the security measures deployed by both international vessels and ports.

New Zealand’s largest-ever cocaine seizure - estimated to have a street value of NZ$20m - was effected through a five-month operation overseen by the New Zealand Customs Service and Police.

Members of a transnational drug syndicate reportedly took a boat alongside the Maersk Antares while in the Port of Tauranga to retrieve the cache on October 31. But with the party’s every move under surveillance, a successful dawn raid was executed at a Tauranga location the following day.

It is not yet known - or has not been disclosed - where or how the overseas smugglers initially gained access to the 109,534 gross ton containership on its Triple Star service between Asia, Latin America and New Zealand. New Zealand Police believe the vessel’s crew was unaware of the Class A drugs concealment.

Modus operandi

With various charges having since been brought against six people - two New Zealanders, two Australians, a Croatian and a Serbian - both Police and Customs declined the opportunity to be drawn on specifics of the case.

However, a Customs spokesperson did confirm the particular smuggling method was a “known” one and emphasised the interception illustrated the effectiveness of its domestic and overseas partnerships in collaboratively managing and preventing maritime risk.

“We have a strong intelligence focus and awareness of international smuggling trends,” the spokesperson told Port Strategy. “Customs works closely with port authorities and shipping lines to help provide balance between the need for port efficiencies and supply chain security.

“Any supply chain can be targeted by transnational criminal syndicates. The increased sharing of commercial intelligence and co-management of risk is important in combating subversion of supply chains."

In addition to maintaining close relationships with the Port of Tauranga and other port companies throughout the country, the spokesperson confirmed Acting Comptroller of Customs Christine Stevenson recently addressed the Port CEOs Group on relevant matters.

“The conversation included the new Government and its priorities, changes the Customs and Excise Bill will bring, health and safety at ports, growth in the cruise industry and Customs seeing more drug interceptions," said the spokesperson.

Tauranga role

Port of Tauranga commercial manager Leonard Sampson says his port’s comprehensive network of high-definition security cameras played a key role in the Maersk Antares stake out.

“We have 24/7 security in place, security people patrolling the port and we also have high-definition cameras observing the port operations,” he said. “We’re very pleased with the performance of our systems and staff in support of the operation and the outcome is a credit to the investigators.”

Although unable to disclose the full range of security measures ports have in place to detect or prevent parties gaining access from the water to berthed vessels, Mr Sampson said one was to promptly advise the police if anyone was spotted trespassing within its exclusion area.

“This is existing policy and is no different than if we see someone trespassing on the port anywhere," says Mr Sampson. "We have people monitoring cameras 24/7 in this respect.” He adds that he was not aware of any security policies that had changed as a consequence of the recent drugs seizure from a New Zealand ports perspective.

Maersk control

A local Maersk spokesperson also advised his line was “limited in the details we can divulge about our security protocols”, but was able to confirm that Maersk Line has "rigorous crisis management plans in place".

“These plans and protocols are continuously evaluated and updated as new contingencies emerge," the spokesperson said. "Maersk is fully committed to abiding by the local laws of every jurisdiction we operate in. As such Maersk Line co-operated fully with the New Zealand authorities.

“More broadly speaking, Maersk co-operates fully and actively with various bodies including ports and law enforcement around the world to stem the flow of all illegal goods, including drugs.”

The spokesperson added that the recent smuggling incident had no impact on the Maersk Antares’ schedule, with the vessel departing Port of Tauranga with no delay to its service.

Shippers' view

Giving the shippers’ perspective, New Zealand Importers’ Institute secretary Daniel Silva says the issue of container security is “always present” given the large volume of boxes in constant movement around the world. He pinpoints four main areas of risk: drugs, undeclared goods, biological security and terrorism.

In New Zealand, Customs specialises on drugs and other forms of smuggling, while the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is primarily concerned with biosecurity. The Police and intelligence agencies are normally concerned with the possibility of smuggling weapons and other public security risks.

“Each of those organisations has two main methods available: intelligence and random checks," says Mr Silva. "Intelligence is by far the most important. It can be improved by facilitating exchanges of information between the various border agencies.

“In New Zealand, we appear to have a good degree of information exchange between agencies. In the case of biosecurity, MPI has set up an interesting scheme of co-opting private operators, like freight forwarders and importers, into their compliance activities. In order to unpack a container, an importer or a forwarder must undergo some basic training on risk assessment and gain the status of an ‘approved facility’. This model could also usefully be adopted by Customs.”

Mr Silva says that performing random checks is also useful, “as it means that smugglers face a possibility of being detected”.

“The main limitation of this method is that it must always apply to a tiny sample of the trade. Every previous attempt to increase the number of containers that are selected for physical inspection started off as bureaucratic over-reach and soon collapsed when the costs of impeding trade became apparent.

“For example, immediately after 9/11 some military types rode into Washington DC and declared the United States borders closed. It took less than 48 hours for sanity to be restored. Another drawback with this approach is that the limited resources used to check a large number of legitimate trade cease to be available for important detection work, informed by intelligence.”

In conclusion, Mr Silva says New Zealand’s maritime trade was “well served” by its border protection agencies, but the challenge is for them to work smarter.

"Increasing the number of containers physically detained for visual inspections is not smart. Improving intelligence collection by better use of data and improving the information flows between the agencies is the smart way to go,” he says.


Shipping Australia chief executive Rod Nairn offers a blunt message to any parties looking to replicate the Maersk Antares smuggling technique in the future: “It is likely that you will get caught!”

He warns that there are many underwater technologies available to monitor ports and sensitive areas using passive and active sonar. Some have been implemented in sensitive areas including around historic wreck sites with remote monitoring in order to protect those sites, while others are also used to monitor military establishments.

“I am not sufficiently in the loop to know whether these are used in commercial ports anywhere in the world at present, but I expect that they may be," he says.

Mr Nairn adds he is aware of other “isolated” cases that are somewhat similar to the Maersk Antares smuggling attempt. “One of these involved a transfer at an offshore waiting anchorage which brings another complication into the picture.”

He notes that ports are responsible for both their own security plans and monitoring of their security zones - including the seaward side of ships, “but the amount of focus/effort on this depends on the specific circumstances of the port geography and the level of anticipated threat".

However, with vessel crews already routinely inspecting their external, above-water areas prior to sailing “as part of good seamanship practices”, Mr Nairn observes there could be potential for such practice to also be extended under the water.

“With modern, remote underwater vehicles it is quite feasible that such inspection of likely attachment areas could be conducted without too much cost or inconvenience.”

One container line proactive in this area is Compagnie Maritime Marfret, which recently announced an inspection initiative for its vessels calling at French West Indies ports en route between Central America and Europe.

“In the never-ending battle between the increasingly-imaginative criminal organisations and state services in charge of eradicating these traffics, Marfret is doing its full part by assisting the French anti-trafficking agency, the Office Central de la Répression du Trafic Illicite de Stupéfiant de la Caraibe,” the carrier stated in a recent Enewsletter.

“On a random basis, divers inspect the vessels’ hulls - potential vectors for trafficking - and agents select containers to be inspected based on their origins/destinations declared on the ships’ manifests.”


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