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February 5, 2004

IMO ballast management convention set for adoption

A new international convention to prevent the effects of the spread of harmful aquatic organisms carried by ships' ballast water is set to be adopted at an international conference at IMO's London headquarters next week.

In the U.S., the Coast Guard has already established regulations and guidelines to control the invasion of aquatic nuisance species to meet the requirements of the National invasive Species Act of 1996. Click here for more details.

The new international convention will have two "tiers."

Tier 1 requirements will apply to all ships. They include mandatory requirements for a Ballast Water and Sediments Management Plan, a Ballast Water Record Book and a requirement that new ships carry out ballast water management procedures to a given standard. Existing ships will be required to do the same, but after a phase-in period.

Tier 2 gives states the option to take additional measures before ships would be allowed to enter their ports. Such additional measures, says an IMO briefing, "are subject to criteria set in the draft convention and to IMO guidelines yet to be developed, and may also include additional controls applicable to discharge and/or uptake areas of ballast water."

"This is an extremely serious environmental issue which IMO has been working on for more than a decade," says IMO Secretary General Efthimios E. Mitropoulos. "The fact of the matter is that ships, by carrying thousands of tons of ballast water from one part of the world to another, can transfer pathogens and other micro-organisms and invasive species which have the capacity to distort and destroy the very delicate balance which exists in the ecosystem of the region where the ballast water is offloaded."

"Unlike oil spills and other marine pollution caused by shipping, exotic organisms and marine species cannot be cleaned up or absorbed into the oceans. Once introduced, they can be virtually impossible to eliminate and in the meantime may cause havoc" he added.

It is estimated that about 10 billion tonnes of ballast water are transferred globally each year, potentially transferring from one location to another species of sealife that may prove ecologically harmful when released into a non-native environment.

The problem of harmful aquatic organisms in ballast water was first raised at IMO in 1988 and since then IMO's Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC), together with the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) and technical sub-committees, have been dealing with the issue, focusing in the past decade first on guidelines and then on developing the new convention.

GloBallast Program

To help developing countries understand the problem, monitor the situation and prepare for the convention, IMO is implementing the GEF/UNDP/IMO Global Ballast Water Management Programme (GloBallast: ) and has provided technical support and expertise.

The conference on the new convention is being preceded by the GloBallast 5th Global Project Task Force (GPTF) Meeting which is taking place also at the IMO Headquarters from February 3-6.


In the late 1980s, Canada and Australia were among countries experiencing particular problems with unwanted species, and they brought their concerns to the attention of IMO's Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC).

In 1991 the MEPC adopted MEPC resolution 50(31)--Guidelines for Preventing the Introduction of Unwanted Organisms and Pathogens from Ships' Ballast Water and Sediment Discharges; while the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, recognized the issue as a major international concern.

In November 1993, the IMO Assembly adopted resolution A.774(18)--Guidelines for Preventing the Introduction of Unwanted Organisms and Pathogens from Ships' Ballast Water and Sediment Discharges, based on the Guidelines adopted in 1991. The resolution requested the MEPC and the MSC to keep the Guidelines under review with a view to developing internationally applicable, legally-binding provisions.

The 20th Assembly of IMO in November 1997 adopted resolution A.868(20)--Guidelines for the control and management of ships' ballast water to minimize the transfer of harmful aquatic organisms and pathogens.

The development of the draft mandatory instrument has been continuing since then.

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