A new proposal for ballast water

The issue of harmful aquatic organisms isn’t going away but there is the sense that this was top of the IMO’s agenda a generation ago. (Credit: International Maritime Organisation)

The International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediment was adopted by the International Maritime Organisation in London, the day before Valentine’s Day in 2004. It has been so unloved by shipowners around the world that it took 14 years for the stipulations for entry into force to be met. Article 19 reads: “This Convention shall enter into force twelve months after the date on which not less than thirty States, the combined merchant fleets of which constitute no less than thirty-five percent of the gross tonnage of the world’s merchant shipping, have either signed it without reservation as to ratification, acceptance, or approval…”

That 12-month period began on 8 September this year, however it is to be wondered how many states now have reservations about its acceptance.

Speaking at SMM, MEPC chairman Arsenio Dominguez let slip, “We are learning from the mistakes of ballast water.” And given the piles of meaty dossiers now on his desk – the upcoming revision of EEDI, whether to drive for a new sulphur limit in 2020, and how to align IMO to meet the terms of the Paris agreement on climate change – the last thing Dominguez needs is a phalanx of flag states armed with detailed research.

One proposal set before the MEPC before Finland’s momentous decision concludes that global dockyard capacity is likely to fall well short of peak demand for retrofitting ballast water management systems in 2020. This claim was based on information from all IACS class societies bar one and assumes, courageously, that 80% of dockyards have adequate expertise to carry out the work.

Moreover, several states have expressed concern that ballast water systems will not be robust enough to meet the required standard. Early movers that installed systems in accordance with what they thought would be approved guidelines are unlikely to be penalised, nevertheless port states are expected to require ships to discharge ballast water that complies with the standard. Common sense will be needed, with practical solutions for owners of existing ships when selecting treatment systems and an acknowledgement that some systems are not yet available on the commercial market

Although dockyard capacity could fail to meet anticipated demand in 2020, it will be stretched in 2017, 2018, and especially 2019 as well. Ballast water systems should be installed by the date of the first renewal survey of the ship associated with the International Oil Pollution Prevention (IOPP) certificate following ratification on 8 September. So the questions are: was it reasonable to set an implementation date before ratification, and wouldn’t it have been better to make sure the technology exists before stipulating what needs to be installed and when? The uncertainty introduced by the non-availability of ballast water management systems approved for use in US waters just adds to the mix.

The proposal suggests a better way is for the MEPC to agree a phased implementation, combined with a robust discussion about how the Convention’s requirements can be met. The issue of harmful aquatic organisms isn’t going away but there is the sense that this was top of the IMO’s agenda a generation ago. We have reached the stage of working out how to solve one of yesterday’s problems. The underlying issue is probably more concerning: the ballast water convention was drawn up because states were offered a choice between a grandly-set out global solution or a series of regional solutions that revealed, frankly, that it’s hard to get unanimous agreement on anything.

Sr Dominguez, the permanent representative to IMO from Panama, has a long track record of playing the maritime diplomat. This might be his toughest test.