IMO treaty to halt invasive aquatic species to come into force next year

Ballast Water Management Convention will come into force on 8 September 2017, 13 years after it was adopted by the International Maritime Organization


Ballast water is routinely taken on by ships for stability and structural integrity. 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.  Photo: Bloomberg
Ballast water is routinely taken on by ships for stability and structural integrity. 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. Photo: Bloomberg

On 8 September, Finland acceded to a key global treaty on environmental protection that seeks to halt the spread of potentially invasive aquatic species in ships’ ballast water.

Finland’s accession means ‘The International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships' Ballast Water and Sediments,’ or the Ballast Water Management Convention, will come into force on 8 September 2017, 13 years after it was adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN agency tasked with the safety and security of shipping globally.

The accession brings the combined tonnage (shipping capacity) of contracting states to the treaty to 35.1441% with 52 contracting parties.

The convention stipulates that it will enter into force 12 months after ratification by a minimum of 30 states, representing 35% of the world’s merchant shipping tonnage (capacity). 

India is still not a signatory to the convention.

Ballast water is routinely taken on by ships for stability and structural integrity. 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.

Untreated ballast water released at a ship’s destination could potentially introduce a new invasive aquatic species. Expanded ship trade and traffic volume over the last few decades have increased the likelihood of invasive species being released.

Hundreds of invasions have already taken place, sometimes with devastating consequences for the local ecosystems, affecting biodiversity and leading to substantial economic loss.

Under the convention’s terms, ships engaged in international trade will be mandated to manage their ballast water to remove, render harmless or avoid the uptake or discharge of aquatic organisms and pathogens within ballast water and sediments to certain standards according to a ship-specific ballast water management plan. Ships will also have to carry a ballast water record book and an International Ballast Water Management Certificate. Ships will need to install an on-board system to treat ballast water and eliminate unwanted organisms. More than 60 type-approved systems are already available.

IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim hailed the development as a “truly significant milestone for the health of our planet”. 

“The spread of invasive species has been recognized as one of the greatest threats to the ecological and the economic well-being of the planet. These species are causing enormous damage to biodiversity and the valuable natural riches of the Earth upon which we depend. Invasive species also cause direct and indirect health effects, and the damage to the environment is often irreversible,” Lim said.

Can shipowners have absolute confidence that the expensive equipment they will soon have to install would be effective in treating ballast water conditions normally encountered during worldwide operations and be regarded as fully compliant during inspections?

There are concerns about this.

“The fixing of a definite implementation date, after so many years of delay, will at least give shipowners some of the certainty needed to make important decisions about whether to refit the new mandatory treatment equipment on-board or otherwise to start sending ships for early recycling,” says Esben Poulsson, chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), a global trade lobby for shipowners whose members operate over 80% of the world’s ships by capacity. 

“Unfortunately, the entry into force of the new IMO regime will not resolve the extreme difficulties that still exist in the US, which is not a party to the IMO Convention,” Poulsson said.

ICS says there is great uncertainty with respect to the more stringent US approval regime for treatment equipment, which was enforced in January 2014.

The US regulations require all ships that discharge ballast water in US waters to use a treatment system approved by the US Coast Guard (USCG). However, because no systems have yet been approved, ships already required to comply with the US regulations have either been granted extensions to the dates for fitting the required treatment systems or else permitted to install a USCG-accepted alternate management system (AMS)—in practice, a system type-approved in accordance with the current IMO guidelines. 

However, an AMS will only be accepted for operation for five years, after which a fully USCG-approved system must be installed. But the USCG does not guarantee that an AMS will be subsequently granted full approval. Hence, ship-owners who may have installed an AMS in good faith, at a cost of $1-5 million per ship, might then have to replace the system completely after only five years. 

“The impasse in the US is a particular concern for operators who have installed ultraviolet (UV) systems,” Poulsson noted. 

ICS says that the situation has been compounded by the USCG announcement late last year that it will not accept the methodology used by other IMO member-states to approve UV treatment systems when assessing the number of viable organisms in treated ballast water.

It is now more vital than ever, according to the ICS, that IMO member-states finalize the revision of the type approval guidelines for treatment systems at the next session of the IMO Marine Environment Protection Committee scheduled in October.

ICS says it will work closely with the IMO member-states to impress upon the US the importance of coming to a “pragmatic solution”.

“Otherwise, once the IMO convention finally enters into force next year, the shipping industry will be faced with real chaos,” Poulsson warned.

P. Manoj looks at trends in the shipping industry.

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