Short sea shipping has a lot to be optimistic about - provided it can stay competitive by maintaining an air of communication and collaboration.

That was the take home message from this year's Coastlink conference, the pan-European network dedicated to the promotion of short sea and feeder container shipping.

The two-day conference focused very much on knowledge sharing - how delegates, short sea operators, ports and logisticians can best take advantage of future opportunities in the market.

Overall, there was very positive feedback to Mercator Media's inaugural Coastlink conference, the first time it has taken place in six years.

Day one of the conference saw an interesting variety of speakers with presentations on how the sector can tackle the changing face of European logistics, including economic demands for transportation.

Sarah Kenny, Vice Chair of Maritime UK, delivered the keynote address and talked about how the £40 billion the marine industry contributes to the UK economy. But highly trained and motived personnel need to be engaged to raise the profile of the industry to be ready for a range of trade futures.

“If we want to move forward, the industry needs to sustain, grow and regain,” she said.

Another stand out talk came from Justin Atkin, the port representative UK & Ireland for the Port of Antwerp, who confirmed that the UK & Ireland is the port’s second largest trading partner with a 15% growth in the UK & Ireland in the last few years.

He talked about the additional opportunities and how there is a need for transparency in the shipping process through digitalisation.

"The sector needs to prepare itself for the future modal shift in shipping, shifting boxes off the road by rail and inland shipping." he said.

Lastly, he talked about Brexit being a "catalyst to renew operational procedures", rather than a negative and a project that Antwerp is working on called NxtPort, where it is sharing digital data with its stakeholders in order to improve operational efficiency.

The afternoon panel session opened with Andrew Ellis, country manager of Unifeeder UK, who talked about daily challenges to the industry including lack of truck drivers, transport costs, seasonal fluctuations, storage, damage of cargo, CSR & environment and Brexit.

Delegates were given the opportunity to continue the day of interesting debate, discussion and comment into the evening with the conference networking dinner.

Day two of the conference centred around how short sea shippers may benefit or lose out from the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its potential impact on European shipping.

At a first glance, the initiative could be seen to only affect seep sea shipping, but the speakers said that it will inherently, create or re-make links and feeder routes that will have a knock-on effect on the short sea shipping sector.

Gavin Roser, Ambassador at Large of the European Freight and Logistics Leaders Forum, set the scene explaining that China is investing money in infrastructure along but not limited to the silk route.

The question is whether certain countries can pay China back and the challenges that may bring in the future and how it will influence freight decisions.

Some speakers were quick to embrace the opportunities that the BRI will bring.

Krzysztof Zalewski from the Port of Gdansk highlighted that it is the gateway for cargo from East to Central and Eastern Europe for China so he said that it makes economic and political sense for the port to back the initiative.

Some speakers though were a little more wary about the influence that the BRI could have on the shipping sector.

Delegates had further opportunity to network at the end of the conference during a tour of Southampton Port’s short sea shipping capabilities, kindly hosted by ABP Southampton.

By Anne-Marie Causer