by Nick Blenkey

Aquatic nuisance species, fouling organisms—and just maybe Federal Prosecutors—are likely to be high on shipowners’ lists of undesirable specimens in the new year.
Let’s start with the first of these.

When Admiral Paul Pluta, the U.S. Coast Guard Assistant Commandant for Marine Safety and Environmental Protection, keynoted last month’s Marine Log Maritime Legislation conference in Washington, he made it very clear that ballast water management is going to be high on his list of priorities.

What’s at issue here, of course, is the problem of invasive species that are transplanted into ecosystems via ships’ ballast water. Probably the most notorious of these aquatic nuisance species is the zebra mussel. Introduced in 1986 into Lake St. Clair near Detroit in ballast water discharges, it now infests waters from Vermont to Oklahoma to Ontario to the Gulf of Mexico. Great Lakes water users spend $30 million annually to monitor and control zebra mussels, which, according to a U.S. Government interagency task force (the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force), are causing massive changes in the Great Lakes ecosystem, including elimination of native mussels and toxic algae blooms. There is substantial concern about impacts on fishery resources and fishery restoration efforts.
Unfortunately, the zebra mussel is but one on a growing list of unwanted aquatic invaders imported in ballast water.

The reaction to this global problem is another example of a situation in which national and local regulators have been swift to respond while an international solution remains under debate.

In the U.S., California is among states with its own legislation on the books. The primary national legislation on the issue is the the Nonindigenous Aquatic Nuisance Prevention and Control Act passed on November 29, 1990, and subsequently amended by the National Invasive Species Act of 1996 (NISA).

The U.S. Coast Guard has instituted a regime of mandatory mid-ocean ballast water exchange for ships calling in the Great Lakes ecosystem and in July 1999 implemented voluntary national guidelines for the rest of the U.S., mandated under NISA. This program includes a requirement that all vessels entering U.S. waters from outside the Exclusive Economic Zone file a BWM report.

However, voluntary may not cut it much longer. NISA set a January 1, 2002 deadline for the Secretary of Transportation to submit a report to Congress assessing the compliance by vessels with the reporting requirement and voluntary guidelines. Using criteria developed by the ANS Task Force as a starting point, this report was to assess the adequacy and effectiveness of the guidelines and regulation in preventing the introduction and spread of nonindigenous species in U.S. waters, and make revisions and/or additions as necessary. If the guidelines are found to be ineffective, the Secretary is required to make the voluntary program mandatory and enforce it with civil and criminal penalties.

NISA calls for the U.S. government to engage in foreign negotiations to address ANS. These are taking place at the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC).

MEPC is working on developing draft new regulations for ballast water management that will be adopted at a diplomatic conference during late 2003. The result will be a new international convention “for the control and management of ships’ ballast water and sediments.”

The proposed convention is being developed on the basis of a two-tier approach.

  • Tier 1 includes requirements that would apply to all ships, including mandatory requirements for a Ballast Water and Sediments Management Plan, a Ballast Water Record Book and a requirement that new ships will carry out ballast water and sediment management procedures to a given standard or range of standards. Existing ships would be required to carry out ballast water management procedures after a phase-in period, but these procedures may differ from those to be applied to new ships.
  • Tier 2 includes special requirements which may apply in certain areas and would include procedures and criteria for the designation of such areas in which additional controls may be applied to the discharge and/or uptake of ballast water. The text for Tier 2 remains to be developed.

The working group on ballast water management, which reports to the MEPC, has confirmed that ballast exchange on the high seas is the only widely used technique currently available to prevent the spread of unwanted aquatic organisms in ballast water and its use should continue to be accepted. 

However, this technique has a number of limitations. Because it is of variable efficiency in removing organisms, the percentage removed depends on the type of organism. The discharged water quality depends on the original quality of the water taken up. It is also has geographical limits. Existing ships may be subject to operational constraints, but it was recognized that new ships may be designed to accommodate ballast exchange in a much wider range of circumstances.

The MEPC Working Group has concluded that development of alternative treatment technologies might produce techniques that were substantially more reliable and that ballast water exchange is an interim solution.
The Global Environment Facility, a unit of UNDEP (the United Nations Development Program) is funding a $10.2 million project called GloBallast to allow the IMO to assist developing countries to tackle the transfer of harmful aquatic organisms in ships’ ballast water.
Reballasting at sea may itself contribute to the wider dispersal of harmful species, and island states located “down-stream” of mid-ocean reballasting areas may be at particular risk from this practice.
Significant research and development (R&D) efforts are therefore underway by a number of scientific and engineering research establishments around the world, aimed at developing a more complete solution to this problem.
Options being considered include mechanical treatment methods such as filtration and separation and such physical sterilization methods as ozone, ultra-violet light, electric currents and heat treatment. Chemical treatment methods that add biocides to ballast water are also being studied.
The GloBallast program hosts a directory of ballast water treatment R&D on its website.

Meantime, if any aquatic nuisance species finds that life gets too uncomfortable inside of the ship, they might just consider hitching a ride on the outside.
Another IMO initiative will shortly outlaw the most effective antifouling component used to keep ships’ hulls free of unwanted organisms: TBT, also known as organotin.
Besides keeping ships slime free, TBT also had such unfortunate effects as changing the sex of species eaten as seafood in some parts of the world.

IMO’s MEPC finalized its draft of its long expected new convention banning the stuff back in April of last year. But it left it to a diplomatic conference to set the effective dates of the organotin ban in stone. MEPC also left it to the diplomatic conference to decide on whether ships would have to be blasted clean of existing organotin-containing antifoulings prior to recoating or whether new coatings could be applied over old, “spent” organotin-containing antifouling layers.

The diplomatic conference adopted an annex to the convention stating that:

  • by an effective date of January 1, 2003, ships shall not apply or re-apply organotins compounds that act as biocides in anti-fouling systems.
  • by January 1, 2008 ships must either be organotin-free or “bear a coating that forms a barrier to such compounds leaching from the underlying non-compliant anti-fouling systems.”

The prohibitions apply to all ships (including fixed and floating platforms, floating storage units (FSUs), and Floating Production, Storage and Offloading units (FPSOs).

The convention includes a clause that states that a ship shall be entitled to compensation if it is unduly detained or delayed while undergoing inspection for possible violations.

The convention provides for the establishment of a “technical group,” to include people with relevant expertise, to review proposals for prohibition or restriction of other substances used in anti-fouling systems.

Countries that are parties to the convention are required to prohibit and/or restrict the use of harmful anti-fouling systems on ships flying their flag, as well as ships not entitled to fly their flag but which operate under their authority and all ships that enter their ports, shipyards or offshore terminals.

This requirement for parties to the convention to ban offending ships from their ports is an interesting example of how the enforcement emphasis in IMO conventions continues to tilt towards port states. It is this ban, above all else, that actually gives the new convention some teeth. 

Ships of 400 gross tons and above engaged in international voyages (excluding fixed or floating platforms, FSUs and FPSOs) will be required to undergo an initial survey before being put into service or before a new “International Anti-fouling System Certificate” is issued for the first time. A survey is required when the anti-fouling systems are changed or replaced.

Ships of 24 meters or more in length but less than 400 gross tons engaged in international voyages (excluding fixed or floating platforms, FSUs and FPSOs) will have to carry a “Declaration on Anti-fouling Systems” signed by the owner or authorized agent. It will have to be accompanied by appropriate documentation such as a paint receipt or contractor invoice.
Anti-fouling systems to be prohibited or controlled will be listed in an annex to the convention that will be updated as and when necessary.

Meantime, shipowners now have to make some tough decisions on selecting from available “replacements” or “alternatives” to TBT offered by the marine coatings industry.