The final months of 2017 saw the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) new rules on ballast water management come into force, and the United States Coast Guard (USCG) toughen up on the enforcement of their own regulations on ballast water discharge. As shippers around the world take the necessary steps to comply with both laws, ballast water is set to remain a hot topic throughout 2018.

On 8 September 2017, the IMO’s Ballast Water Management (BWM) Convention, which was adopted back in 2004, finally came into force, marking a crucial step forward on the shipping industry’s path towards halting the spread of invasive aquatic species, an issue that, according to IMO secretary general Kitack Lim, has been recognised as one of the greatest threats to the ecological and economic wellbeing of the planet.

Ballast water is routinely taken on by ships for stability and structural integrity. The problem is that it can contain thousands of aquatic microbes, algae and animals, which are then carried across the world’s oceans and released into ecosystems where they are not native, causing damage to biodiversity.

Under the terms of the convention, all ships in international trade are now required to manage their ballast water so that aquatic organisms and pathogens are removed or rendered harmless before the ballast water is released into a new location.

Current IMO requirements

There are two standards within the convention – D1 and D2 – and for the time being, the majority of ships only have to comply with the former, which requires them to exchange their ballast water in open seas, away from coastal areas, ideally at least 200 nautical miles from land and in water at least 200m deep.

They also have to carry: a ballast water management plan, including a detailed description of the actions to be taken to implement the requirements; a ballast water record book to record when ballast water is taken on board, circulated or treated and discharged; and, for ships weighing 400 gigatonnes and above, an International Ballast Water Management Certificate.

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Moving forward, there will be a phased approach to meeting the D2 standard, which specifies the maximum amount of viable organisms allowed to be discharged, including specified indicator microbes harmful to human health. From 8 September, new ships have had to conform to D2, but it won’t be until 2024, 20 years after the convention’s adoption, that all ships will. For most, this will involve the installation of special equipment to treat the ballast water.

Stricter rules in the US

For ships operating in US waters, however, there isn’t quite so much room for manoeuvre, thanks to federal regulations already in force, which are stricter than their IMO counterparts. “Since the US is not signatory to the BWM Convention, the USCG is not enforcing it,” explains USCG spokesperson LT Amy Midgett. “Rather, the USCG enforces its regulations on commercial vessels fitted with ballast water tanks.”

Existing ships must comply with these regulations at the first scheduled dry-dock after 1 January 2016, and newbuilds at delivery. Compliance involves either being equipped with a USCG type-approved ballast water management system or an approved Alternative Management System (AMS). After five years, the AMS must either achieve USCG type-approval or be replaced with a type-approved system.

Ships are also required to develop and implement a full training plan for their BWMS, as these systems are highly technical and complex and require specialised training to ensure that crews know how to use and maintain them.

Crucially, while it used to be fairly simple for an operator to document that compliance with one of the accepted ballast water management methods was not possible and thereby get an extension, this is no longer the case as, since December 2016, six BWM systems have been type-approved.

While extensions can be granted, the process isn’t as straightforward as it used to be. The USCG is also getting much tougher when it comes to enforcement of the regulations.

“The CG has taken enforcement actions ranging from issuing warnings to taking civil penalty actions. The Captain of the Port may impose an operational control restricting the vessel’s movement or cargo operation, monetary penalty, and an increase in examinations,” says Midgett.

“Restrictions in cargo operations may cost a vessel owner anywhere from $30,000 to over $100,000 in port, agent, or pilot fees, fuel, cargo delays, or other penalties. There is also potential for prosecution if criminal intent is suspected.”

Frustration among operators

With so much regulatory development in the area of ballast water management, it will come as little surprise that many shipping companies are struggling to keep up, particularly those that operate in US waters.

One of the biggest challenges they are facing, according to Midgett, is selecting the right BWMS for their ships from the six type-approved systems and approximately hundred AMSs currently on the market. “Not all [systems] are suited for all ships based on the ship’s operating pattern, space and size restrictions,” she explains, adding that the operability of the systems is also causing frustration with some operators.

“We have learned that the successful use of a BWMS requires a company’s commitment to engineering design and installation, crew training, and matching the BWMS limitations with the ship’s operations. The Coast Guard is also strongly encouraging vessel owners and operators to plan for contingencies. A vessel’s ballast water management plan should provide directions and alternate measures to be taken if a ballast water management system becomes inoperable, or if the vessel’s intended compliance method is unexpectedly not available.”

Industry calls for manufacturer association

Further afield, operators outside the US are struggling to overcome similar hurdles, according to Ed Wroe, technical manager at the International Association of Dry Cargo Shipowners (INTERCARGO).

“There are a number of challenges that owners face, including but not limited to: differences between regional and global requirements; the complexity and cost of retrofitting the systems onto existing bulk carriers; the suitability of available systems to meet operational requirements of the vessels; whether the systems do what they are meant to do; and post installation services/support provided by manufacturers,” he says.

Interestingly, INTERCARGO saw its membership numbers rise significantly from January to September 2017, and although it’s difficult to say how much of this growth is because of the BWM Convention or any other specific piece of legislation, Wroe does put it down in part to the increasing pace of regulatory developments within the sector.

“Shipping companies are more interested in being adequately informed on time and also being more involved in these developments,” he believes, adding that for INTERCARGO’s part, the hope is that BWMS manufacturers will form an association to help the industry overcome the inevitable challenges it will face over the coming months and years.

“That way associations such as ourselves who represent shipowners would be able to have a dialogue with a single body, representing the manufacturers, thus enabling constructive discussions on the needs of the owners and operators,” he concludes.