Pilots 'may break laws'

THE Director of Marine has expressed fears that the pilots who hold a lucrative monopoly over Hong Kong's shipping could be committing commercial crimes far outside his jurisdiction.

Allan Pyrke said the pilotage service needed to be seen as ''fair and impartial'', and he was concerned at any issue which affected that.

''Historically, pilots in many world ports have been suspected of using their position to obtain an unfair advantage for other marine services in which they have financial interest,'' said Mr Pyrke, whose position also makes him Pilotage Authority boss.

''These days, speculation about such action may linger on but in reality it is not against any marine law in Hong Kong, although it may break other laws.'' He added that he believed the present set-up served the port safely, effectively and at a competitive price compared with other ports.

His comments follow recent Post reports that some of the 65 pilots licensed to guide large or dangerous ships around Hong Kong waters have private financial interest in shipping companies and may be pushing ship's captains into using certain tug companies.

Industry concern is mounting, and the Pilotage Advisory Committee is preparing to heed consultants' advice to legally enshrine the Hong Kong Pilots' Association, a private company.

The committee includes an association representative and sets the pilotage dues annually, but does so without knowing what individual pilots earn or the profits of the company.

Pilots are shareholders of the association, which has carved out a total monopoly on the compulsory pilotage of shipping in Hong Kong - more than 45,000 movements last year.

Mr Pyrke said any potential conflict of interest was being addressed by the implementation of the $2 million Pilotage Consultancy Report, which could result in a voluntary code of practice.

The chairman of the influential Liner Shippers' Association, Sunny Ho, who is also general manager of Swire Shipping Agencies, said it was time for pilots to declare outside interests to ensure Hong Kong's port was not being held to ransom.

''They have a monopoly that no one can touch and that has control over most of the ships using Hong Kong, now the world's biggest container port. There is far too much at stake to let the present situation continue,'' he said.

Mr Ho said his organisation, which was also represented on the pilots' committee, would be seeking codes of ethics.

and declarations of interest from the association before any legal recognition is given to the Pilots' Association stranglehold.

He said his group had never succeeded in gaining a clear picture of the association's earnings, despite annual demands from them for increases in pilotage dues which have risen by an average of 10 per cent a year over the past five years.

Any moderately large shipping company with 100 average-sized ships (about 20,000 tonnes) visiting Hong Kong each year would be now paying upwards of $1.5 annually to the association.