The Paraná River is renowned for its strong current, shallow waters and sandbanks, which are constantly shifting and exposing vessels to the risk of grounding. If a vessel runs aground, it is likely that the navigation channel will become obstructed due to its narrowness. In such case the coastguard will determine whether a suspension of navigation is required until the vessel is refloated – which may take days or weeks – or whether vessels can continue navigating the channel. This risk is exacerbated by the fact that the use of tugs is not compulsory for berthing or unberthing in Argentina's busiest ports (ie, San Lorenzo and Rosario), which rely on skilful pilots who berth and unberth vessels by their own means without external assistance.
The maritime business combines the opportunity of advantage with the risk of loss, which is something that a party engaged in business on the Paraná River must bear in mind when assessing the abovementioned risks.
Article 31 of the Navigation Act (20,094/73) posits that the Maritime Authority will decide on the use of tugs in any port, taking into consideration the hydrography of the river. In this regard – through Resolution 1/74 – the authority has made the use of tugs compulsory, for example, in the following ports:
- Buenos Aires;
- Bahia Blanca;
- La Plata;
- Quequén; and
- Villa Constitución.
In contrast, there is no requirement to use tugs for mooring operations in the following ports:
- San Lorenzo;
- Puerto General San Martin; and
The five abovementioned ports host nearly 40 port terminals and 75% of dry and wet commodities exported from Argentina are shipped from these ports. Most cases in which vessels run aground occur in these ports or neighbouring areas.
Maritime business represents an international sector in which commercial expectations are secondary to safety, which is the main priority. However, when grounding occurs due to a lack of regulation regarding towage, commercial expectations are frustrated because the navigation channel may be closed, thus delaying vessels that are queuing to load. Further, the shipowner or the charterer affected by the grounding may face a salvage operation that could have been avoided.
Safe navigation – including the use of tugs – must be offset against the abovementioned risks involved in doing business on the Paraná River. Otherwise, the situation will remain a lottery. In this regard, and considering the continuous increase in vessels calling at San Lorenzo, it is expected that the Maritime Authority will review existing legislation to improve safety in the Paraná River.