‘Landmark’ Ballast Water Management Regulations Set to Enter Into Force

Photo: IMO
Photo: IMO

Long-awaited international regulations meant to combat the spread of potentially invasive aquatic species in ships’ ballast are set to enter into force in September 2017, the International Maritime Organization announced Thursday.

The new regulations, known as the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments, or simply the Ballast Water Management Convention for short, mark a “landmark step” towards halting the spread of invasive aquatic species, which can cause havoc for local ecosystems, affect biodiversity and lead to substantial economic loss.

Shipowners have expressed concern over implementation of the new regime, and are calling for urgent action from government to address the ballast water “chaos.”

The convention is set to enter into force on 8 September 2017 after accession by Finland this week, which fulfilled the requirements of the convention and trigged its entry into force. The convention has now been ratified by 20 States, representing 35% of the world’s merchant shipping tonnage.

The Ballast Water Management Convention was adopted in 2004 by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations specialized agency responsible for developing global standards for ship safety and security and for the protection of the marine environment and the atmosphere from any harmful impacts of shipping.

IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim called the entry into force “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,” kim said. “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.”

Ballast water is routinely taken on by ships for stability and structural integrity, but the water can contain thousands of aquatic microbes, algae and animals. Without treatment, these organisms can then be spread across the world’s oceans and released into ecosystems where they are not native, sometimes causing devastating consequences to local ecosystems.

The Ballast Water Management Convention will require all ships in international trade to manage their ballast water and sediments to certain standards, according to a ship-specific ballast water management plan. All ships will also have to carry a ballast water record book and an International Ballast Water Management Certificate. The ballast water performance standard will be phased in over a period of time, with most ships needing to install an on-board system to treat ballast water and eliminate unwanted organisms. More than 60 type-approved systems are already available.

“The entry into force of the Ballast Water Management Convention will not only minimize 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,” Kim added.

The IMO has been addressing the problem of invasive species in ships’ ballast water since at least the 1980s, when Member States experiencing particular problems brought their concerns to the attention of IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC). Guidelines to address the issue were adopted in 1991 and the IMO then worked to develop the Ballast Water Management Convention, which was adopted in 2004.

But not everyone is happy with the new convention. The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) has expressed concern over the implementation of the new regime, calling for ‘urgent action’ from governments to act on the ballast water “chaos,” particularly in the U.S. where more stringent rules have been in place since 2014 and yet no treatment systems have been approved. 

“We must ensure that shipowners can have absolute confidence that the expensive equipment they will soon have to install will be effective in treating ballast water conditions normally encountered during worldwide operations and be regarded as fully compliant during Port State Control inspections,” commented ICS Chairman, Esben Poulsson.

“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 or otherwise to start sending ships for early recycling,” Poulsson added. “Unfortunately, the entry into force of the new IMO regime will not resolve the extreme difficulties that still exist in the United States.”