Houthi attacks jeopardise recovery of stricken Red Sea cargo ship

Experts say a combination of the MV Rubymar's dangerous cargo, heavy damage and nearby conflict could present a unique salvage challenge

The half-submerged Rubymar which was damaged in a Houthi missile attack in the Red Sea off Yemen. EPA
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Continued attacks on shipping by Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi militia could jeopardise recovery of the partially sunk cargo ship MV Rubymar, which was abandoned after being struck by missiles last week.

Experts have told The National that failure to recover the ship could lead to an environmental disaster in the Red Sea as its cargo of 20,000 tonnes of fertiliser could damage the region’s fragile ecology.

The Houthis vowed on Tuesday to continue their near-daily missile and drone attacks on civilian shipping in the Red Sea unless Israel halts its “aggression” against Gaza,

The Houthi attacks and counter strikes by US and UK aircraft complicate what experts say would be difficult recovery operation even in peacetime.

Even if the Rubymar is saved from sinking, there remains “the question where to take her and deal with the hazardous cargo”, says James Brewin, an expert on maritime salvage in the UK. “This will be a tricky question as most ports will be reluctant to welcome her in.”

Djibouti has already refused to accept the ship, calling its cargo “dangerous”.

The ship has been taking on water since it was hit by two Houthi ballistic missiles, one of which pierced its side. The latest photos available show the vessel's stern submerged to deck level on Tuesday. Fuel leaking from the ship has created a 30km-long slick.

Red Sea conflict

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence Daniel Shapiro said on Tuesday that the Houthis were committed to continuing their campaign to sever the Red Sea trade route, which carries around 12 per cent of maritime trade, until the Gaza war ends.

The Pentagon said this week that 230 targets had been struck inside Yemen, including Houthi missile launch sites, headquarters and drones on the ground. A naval interdiction mission is also continuing, with US ships intercepting vessels disguised as civilian ships carrying arms from Iran to the Houthis.

However, attacks continue, even as the naval task forces in the Red Sea are reinforced in a multinational coalition.

A German warship on Tuesday shot down two drones as part of a five-drone attack, the US military's Central Command said, days after joining the EU’s Aspides mission to protect maritime trade in the Red Sea, alongside the US-led Prosperity Guardian operation.

Rubymar recovery challenge

The Houthis may be reluctant to facilitate the recovery of the Rubymar – as occurred with the FSO Safer, a ship carrying more than one million barrels of oil that the group seized at anchor and left to deteriorate while using it as a bargaining chip.

Oil on the Safer was eventually transferred to another ship, after years of repeated warnings of a catastrophic spill in the confines of the Red Sea.

“No one wants to let the Rubymar into their ports because of the risk and, making matters worse, the weather is deteriorating and there are storms forecast. So it is bad and could get worse,” says Ian Ralby, whose maritime security company, IR Consilium, was among the first organisations to assess the stranded Safer in 2018.

Maoz Fine, an expert on coral reef conservation at the Interuniversity Institute of Marine Science, says a risk assessment of the ship’s cargo must be completed as soon as possible.

“The amount of fertiliser on the Rubymar may indeed cause an algal bloom if it remains in shallow (photic) waters, but less of a problem if it sinks to great depth. I think it will be wise to get a chemical oceanographer to calculate the dispersion and dilution rates of so much ammonium nitrate,” Mr Fine says.

Concern from nearby ports such as Djibouti could also relate to the potentially explosive fertiliser cargo.

“Over 20,000 tonnes is a big explosion risk. As for impact on the water, I assume it's all packaged, so depends on how it's wrapped (waterproof or not), but one can only hope for quick dilution, and if not, it's likely going to cause some local impact on fisheries, marine ecosystems,” says Wim Zwijnenburg, a UN Green Star Award-winning expert on the environmental impact of war.

Recovering the ship could present risks to any salvagers, says Mr Brewin.

“Priorities for owners will be very much in the order of safety of life and protection of the environment, and saving the vessel herself. Since the crew were safely evacuated, one job becomes about the safety of any salvage team deployed to assist,” he says.

“It's likely that some intervention by divers will be required as soon as practicable in order to prevent further fuel oil leakage and secure buoyancy. That could involve sealing up apertures in the hull, patching areas of damage below the water line, potentially pumping out water from the flooded engine room.”

Mr Brewin said the seawater in the engine room could reduce the ship's propulsion and electrical systems to “scrap”.

Updated: February 28, 2024, 2:11 PM