IMO Completes and Adopts International Ballast Water Convention

Following a long week of discussion and debate, the member states of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) finally completed and adopted the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments.

It was never going to be a straightforward meeting. This is a major environmental issue that the vast majority supports in principle from a belief that managing ballast water is environmentally essential and eminently desirable. But the operational side is fraught with practical difficulties, with the relevant technology a long way behind. Difficulties with key issues such as the standard for ballast treatment, the entry into force criteria and the phase out of ballast water exchange, proved to be tough nuts to crack. Many of the major issues ended up being decided either by an indicative vote or by compromise negotiations undertaken late into the final evening.

Unlike the Antifouling Convention, this crucial environmental Convention requires states to agree on issues on the assumption that a solution to the problem will emerge in the future. This is the first of such instruments developed in this manner by the IMO, and as such was perhaps one of the most difficult to tackle. Nevertheless many view this as being the most significant piece of legislation to impact the shipping industry since MARPOL.

From the perspective of those who will have to implement such legislation, the following key decisions were made:

  • Regardless of the problems industry encountered with the set-date aspect of the Anti-fouling Convention, the same ‘set-date’ principle has been used for this Convention. This means that, regardless of whether the required number of states have ratified the Convention in time, the entry-into-force dates will be fixed and an assessment by industry will have to be made on whether retroactive legislation will be introduced in certain states. In this respect, ballast water exchange will be phased out as a treatment option for large (ballast volumes over 5000m3) existing vessels in 2014. New ships built after 2012 and with a ballast volume greater than 5000m3 will have to conform to the new treatment standard, specified below;
  • The ballast water treatment standard for new ships has been specified as a set number of organisms permitted to be discharged per volume of water. This means the ballast water discharged by large new vessels, built after 2012, must not discharge more than 10 living organisms of more than 50 microns in dimension (1/50th of a millimetre) per cubic metre of water. Living organisms that are less than 50 microns but larger than 10 microns should not be present in the discharged ballast water at a concentration of more than 10 organisms per millilitre.
  • The performance standard also covers smaller organisms (microbes) such as E. coli. The discharged ballast water from large new vessels will have to meet similar requirements to that expected of coastal bathing water in Europe.

Although the above points are key to the Convention, a host of other important elements have been agreed which will affect the final implementation and entry into force of the Convention. These include in particular:

  • caveats in the articles of the Convention allowing states to implement more stringent measures than those mentioned above. Although this is not unusual for an International Convention, the explicit nature of the text in this Convention rings alarm bells over unilateral action to enforce higher standards;
  • entry into force requirements stating that the Convention will only come into force 12 months after 30 states comprising not less that 35% of the world fleet (in tonnage) have ratified it. (It is likely though that, regardless of whether the entry into force requirements are met, states will implement the national legislation using the set-date principles in the Convention).

IMO Secretary General Efthimios Mitropoulos requested in his opening address to the Conference that this Convention should be meaningful in its technical requirements. Such an objective was essential from the industry perspective and has unfortunately been largely lost in the Convention, with a number of aspects such as inspection, violation and port entry criteria being ambiguous in their language. A full analysis on how the various elements that have been agreed at the Conference will affect members will now commence.

Contact: Tim Wilkins