The Ballast Water Convention

Shipowners and many others in the marine industry are preparing themselves for the introduction by the IMO of a Convention regulating the disposal of ballast water, for environmental reasons.

For many years scientists and environmentalists have been grappling with the problem of non-native species causing serious environmental harm in the world's oceans. Marine life such as bacteria, microbes, small invertebrates, eggs and larvae can invade and wreak havoc when introduced into alien waters.

Part of the answer to this problem is in the hands of shipowners and others in the marine industry. Ballast water, which has been used to stabilise working vessels for over a century, usually involves drawing in water from one area of the ocean and pumping it out in another, for example when loading and unloading cargo at different ports. This ballast water contains many millions of microscopic invasive species that cause series damage within their new ecosystem.

The IMO is now seeking to tackle this problem with the implementation of the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships' Ballast Water and Sediments 2004 (the "Convention"). This aims to manage and regulate the discharge of ballast water in different waters by working vessels flagged under Convention states.

The Convention is not in force - and does not even have an implementation date for the UK yet - as the requisite 35% of world merchant shipping tonnage over 30 signing states has not been met. In spite of this, the shipping industry is still preparing for the Convention's eventual implementation - and it is proving to be a cause of considerable concern among many.

Chief among the industry's concerns is the purportedly high costs involved in purchasing and installing ballast water management treatment systems on working vessels. There will also be the additional cost of training personnel to use them. There is also potential for disputes between owners and charterers as to who should bear the burden of risk caused by delays from compliance control and searches in ports and harbours. Sampling and analysis of ballast water in order to check for safe levels of invasive species can occur at any time during a PSC inspection. However, there is as yet no unified method devised as to how such a sample may be taken, making it difficult for shipowners to prepare for this contingency.

Further challenges to the IMO are jurisdictional in nature. Amongst others, Australia, Brazil and the USA already have either federal, local or national regulations managing ballast water discharge in their waters. This gives rise to potential disharmony in different areas over, say, testing protocols or the requirements of ballast water treatment systems. For example, whereas the Convention provides for these systems to make organisms "unviable", the more stringent USA counterpart holds such systems should "kill" invasive species.

So it is clear that the implementation of the Convention, when it finally does happen, will not be without its challenges. For the Convention to work would involve all parts of the industry across many jurisdictions working together to ensure its proper implementation. All parties agree that it is in the interests of the industry, ecology, the economy and public health to ensure ballast water discharge is managed and regulated at safe levels. The alternative could mean disaster for many of our fragile marine ecosystems. 

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