New ballast water treaty raises stakes for shipowners

IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim accepts convention approval from Finland's Päivi Luostarinen. Credit: IMO
IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim accepts convention approval from Finland's Päivi Luostarinen. Credit: IMO

Pressure on foreign shipowners looking to trade in the US with legal ballast water cleaning systems on board their ships has significantly increased with the authorisation of a new international maritime treaty.

Finland started a one-year count-down to the treaty’s 8 September 2017 enforcement date when it signed on to the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments on 8 September.

Within one year, vessel owners looking to trade in any of the 52 countries that have ratified the convention so far will be required to have on board their ships one of 60 ballast water management systems (BWMS) that have been type-approved under the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) testing scheme.

Such equipment is aimed at reducing the threat of introducing invasive species – such as zebra mussels – into non-indigenous regions through a ship’s ballast water by removing the species or rendering them harmless.

“The entry into force of the Ballast Water Management Convention will not only minimise the risk of invasions by alien species via ballast water, it will also provide a global level playing field for international shipping, providing clear and robust standards for the management of ballast water on ships,” commented IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim.

However, initially the playing field will be anything but level for foreign-flag shipowners looking to trade in American waters, because the US Coast Guard (USCG) has yet to approve a ballast water system that meets more rigorous US standards. That means operators could end up spending from USD3–5 million to install IMO-approved equipment that may not eventually be considered legal for use in the United States.

“This situation puts owners at the risk of having to install an IMO type-approved system that may never achieve USCG type approval,” said Joe Angelo, deputy managing director for INTERTANKO, whose 210 members represent a combined fleet of over 3,600 tankers and 312.7 million dwt.

“If the chosen system does not obtain USCG approval, it will have to be replaced within five years in order to continue to trade to the US. A shipowner, who in good faith wants to comply with international and national ballast water management requirements, therefore faces an unacceptable position of having to possibly invest twice in a BWMS through no fault of his or her own.”

Kathy Metcalf, president of the Chamber of Shipping of America, whose members include foreign-flag shipowners, IHS Markit earlier this year that owners can make “informed decisions” on investing in ballast water equipment that may eventually get approved in the US – but that there are no guarantees.

Now that the convention has been ratified, “this will most certainly put some pressure on the US to get a type approval or two on the books,” Metcalf told IHS IHS Markit on 9 September. “But even if they don’t, shipowners are going to have to figure out what they are going to do given the convention does not have any provisions for extensions.”