Comment: Same ballast water risk areas cut opportunities for sales

Ballast water tank. Credit: International Maritime Organisation
Ballast water tank. Credit: International Maritime Organisation

Ever since the ballast water management convention was agreed in 2004, there has been criticism of the need for all ships to one day manage ballast water because many trade only within specific areas and pose no risk at all.

Criticism of the convention itself is not valid for two reasons. At the discretion of the flag state, convention need not apply to ships that operate exclusively in the waters of that state or between the high seas and waters of that state. The second reason is that under Regulation A4, there has always been the possibility for exemptions to be granted to ships that operate between specific ports and locations.

The wording of Regulation A4 has been interpreted as allowing for what are known as same risk areas (SRAs) that can be established by neighbouring states if it is decided that the risk of transfer of invasive species is acceptable. This implies that a risk assessment should be carried out and Guideline G7 details the recommended process for this.

For a long time, this possible exemption may have been at the back of shipowners’ minds but could not be acted on unless and until the port states involved put in hand the process of assessing the risk and establishing SRAs with their neighbours. There are several areas which fall into this category – Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, and the coastlines of the North and South Americas.

There are moves afoot to establish SRAs with the subject having been discussed at the past three MEPC meetings. In Northern Europe, Denmark is taking the lead and has presented many papers to the IMO’s MEPC meetings. In Southeast Asia, Singapore is in the driving seat, but has Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam along as co-drivers. The United States is outside the IMO convention, but can exempt its own flag vessels should it desire to. SRAs will again be on the agenda at MEPC 71 in July, but more relevance will be given to the revision of the G8 guidelines.

Flag states acting alone or with others could declare an SRA, providing the IMO is advised and it can be shown that the risk assessment has been carried out. However, time is running out for any to be in place before 8 September, when the convention comes into full effect. Owners of vessels that might benefit from any future SRA may well decide that rather than fork out on installing a system immediately, they will take advantage of the option to decouple the IOPP certificate from the survey cycle and buy themselves a further five years, by which time the issue of SRAs will likely have been settled.

The majority of the ships involved are either ferries or smaller vessels, such as feeder container vessels, ro-ro cargo vessels, general cargo ships, handy bulkers, and product and chemical tankers. Small they may be, but in numeric terms they make up a very large percentage of the world fleet. The exact number is difficult to pin down, but a number of estimates of between 20,000 and 30,000 have been mentioned various times.

If a substantial number of these are able to benefit from SRAs, the impact on system makers’ projected incomes will be significant. For ships that operate across two SRAs, the option of one of the container-based systems, such as those offered by Damen and others, may extend further the number of ships that decide against installing a ship-specific system.