The Ballast Water Convention Challenge

Ballast water is essential for safe and energy-efficient ship operation. Ships fill and empty their ballast water tanks depending on the weight of the cargo on board, as this enables them to float stably on the water and to thereby operate as safely and efficiently as possible. Long-term efforts are being made to prevent the unintended side effects of transporting harmful aquatic microorganisms into foreign waters.

The International Convention on the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) stipulates that every ship is required to treat its ballast water. For German shipowners, the convention represents an important contribution to efforts to protect marine environments. With this convention, the IMO has once again set effective global standards that do not distort competition because they apply to all shipping companies. At the same time, the convention is also one of the most expensive environmental regulations the shipping industry has ever had to shoulder.

The treaty text, originally adopted in 2004, entered into force on 8 September 2017. All ships now have until 8 September 2024 to install a ballast water treatment system. The actual deadline for when a specific ship must have completed this installation is determined by the date when its essential International Oil Pollution Prevention (IOPP) certificate must be renewed. 
Exceptions to this can only be approved by the flag states for dredgers and offshore vessels, as well as for vessels operating exclusively within one “bio-region” (waters containing the same marine animals and microorganisms) between two to three specified ports, such as on the North Sea and Baltic Sea. The timeframe for retrofitting all of the roughly 40,000 impacted ships with the systems, which cost up to 2 million euros each, was already very ambitious from the start. But outfitting the ships has become even more challenging for shipping companies owing to the global travel and supply disruptions triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.  

Yet another difficulty is the fact that the US Coast Guard (USCG), which oversees such matters in the United States, has set standards for the quality of the post-treatment ballast water that are stricter than the IMO guidelines included in the convention. For example, whereas the IMO stipulates that microorganism transported in the ballast water must no longer be capable of reproducing, the US Coast Guard requires that the microorganisms not survive the treatment in the system at all.

When the special US regulation was first issued, no manufacturers were technically able to deliver this level of quality, and it took some time before some – and only a very small number – of them were able to do so. However, at the instigation of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) within the framework of the IMO, shipowners who had already installed ballast water treatment systems from other manufacturers in their ships are permitted to continuing using them for up to five years. For all other ships, shipping companies have had to apply for vessel-specific exemptions from the US authorities that only remain valid until a system that meets the standards becomes available.