Ballast Water Management – Why is it important?

Officer of the Watch examines legislative efforts to avoid disastrous environmental risks posed by ballast water from international shipping

The problem:

Ships use ballast to control their stability. The ballast can be solid, and historically rocks or iron ingots might have been used, but nowadays the stability is provided by pumping water in and out of tanks on the ship. By filling or emptying different tanks, the stability of the ship can be adjusted and controlled. On the new generation of large ships, the amount of ballast water can be very considerable, amounting to many tens of thousands of tonnes.  Ballast tanks must be either full or empty to avoid water slopping about inside them.


ballast-water-pump-port-exchange-shippingTypically, a ship will pump in ballast water when leaving a port and pump it out again on arrival. This has led to some major environmental and public health disasters.

For example, in 1991 a ship loaded in Bangladesh and discharged in Peru. Within its ballast water was a strain of cholera inducing bacterium that had previously not been seen in South America, and as a result nearly 1,000,000 people contracted the disease and 10,000 people died.

Thirty years ago, a ship from North America sailed up the Bosphorus and dumped ballast water containing comb jellyfish from the US. The invader – Mnemiopsisleidyi – consumed large amounts of the plankton and triggered a catastrophic decline in marine life, including commercial fisheries, in both the Caspian and the Black Sea.

Currently Pacific nations are experiencing major problems with the crown of thorns starfish, which can be extremely damaging to coral reefs.

There are numerous other such examples. The zebra mussel has become a menace throughout the world and has destroyed fisheries in the Great Lakes.It also poses a considerable problem in the UK.

Chinese mitten crabs are infesting many British rivers, cause great damage to the integrity of riverbanks and are a threat to native marine species.

The cost to the UK of these invasions has been estimated at £1.7 billion annually, plus the hidden items such as public health costs.

What has been done about it?

Ship-workerThe International Maritime Organisation (IMO) is the United Nations specialised agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships. To prevent disasters such as these, in 2004, the IMO agreed legislation that would require ships to purify their ballast water before they were permitted to pump it out. It was to come into force twelve months after 30 member states representing a minimum of 35% of global shipping tonnage had ratified it. However, implementation of the requirements was far from straight forward. How could you purify such large quantities of water? What level of purity had to be obtained? Many nations used the uncertainties as a reason not to adopt the legislation, and so the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments (BWM) remained in abeyance for thirteen years.

vessel-inspection-balast-water-testingIt has now returned to centre stage. Thirty nations had ratified the regulation some time ago, but, because they were nations with smaller amounts of tonnage, it is only recently that 35% of global shipping tonnage was approached. On 7th September 2016 Finland ratified the Convention, the 35% was exceeded, and consequently the regulations came into force on September 8th 2017. Furthermore, the regulations will be binding on all ships, regardless of their flag. Since Finland’s accession the number of ratifying nations has rapidly risen to 65, representing 74% of global gross tonnage. The U.K. is planning to ratify in 2018.

The U.S:

Meanwhile, the United Sates have brought out their own legislation and this is already in effect. It differs very slightly from the IMO legislation, but, for simplicity, we can take it that the effects of the legislation are the same.  By policing their legislation, considerable improvements have already commenced. At a time when the UK criticises the US for withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, it is ironic that the UK has so far failed to take action in this other environmental issue and lags far behind the US, despite having had thirteen years in which to prepare.

Classification Societies:

All matters of compliance with the regulations for the construction and safe maintenance of ships are placed in the hands of Classification Societies. Among the major ones are Den Norske Veritas (DNV), American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) and Lloyds. They provide certificates for each vessel as to compliance with all matters of construction and operation of the ship, but have no involvement with the day to day management of the vessel.


ship-workers-ballast-environment-inspection-marineTo comply with the new legislation, standards of purity of the water being pumped out are clearly laid down. The legislation also calls for ships to carry a ballast water management plan, to carry records of their ballast water events and to have a suitably qualified person available to record and report ballast water operations. The classification society for the ship will verify that a ship is compliant with respect to its equipment, and port state control has the responsibility to inspect visiting ships to see that the equipment is working correctly, to ensure that the crew is trained and that there is a designated ballast water officer assigned. They are also required to see that the management plan is in place and that proper records have been kept. Non-compliance should result in a ship being refused permission to pump out ballast, with potentially disastrous effects for the ship-owner and for those with cargo on the ship. P&I Insurance groups have already stated that they will not hold negligent owners covered. However, compliance will only happen if policing of the regulation takes place. Unless verification takes place, irresponsible or negligent ship owners will be able to present the required pieces of paper, without any compliance actually having occurred. Policing is critical.

In the UK, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency will be responsible for ensuring compliance through Port State Control. The UK has not yet ratified the IMO regulation and has not been at the forefront of steps to control the spread of invasive species through ballast water. Only Orkney Harbours have implemented a policy of ballast water management for Scapa Flow. While the IMO designates Port State Control as responsible for compliance, the body that would be most affected by failures to control ballast water is the Marine Management Organisation.

Where are we now?

There is currently no clear guidance as to how the regulations will be implemented and controlled in the UK. Furthermore, whereas the Smithsonian Environmental Research Centre collates ballast water management records in the US, there are no plans for any such data centre here. The UK has no plans in place to record, monitor, report or reduce the ballast water that is pumped into British waters annually. An estimate made by experts is between 26 and 43 million metric tons each year.

Due to the lack of knowledge and understanding of this problem among the populace as a whole, and by elected representatives in particular, there is no plan in place for the UK, and apparently no sense of urgency for this major environmental issue. From a risk-management perspective, this has the potential to cause great damage to the marine environment (often irreversible). There is the opportunity for the outbreak of disease, including very serious health problems from organisms in ballast water from other ports. Commercial fisheries and aquaculture operations are among those who could be seriously affected by invasive aquatic species.

Who will pay the costs?

The current official thinking is that testing and policing of this law would have to be done by Government bodies with a consequent burden on the taxpayer. In this scenario, there is no action planned at all to ensure compliance.  Since this impacts all UK ports, coasts and harbours; and the shipping industry (the visiting vessels) are the new regulated entity, it is logical that those expenses be borne by the user of the ports, coasts and harbours, not the taxpayer. This is the common practice in many other fields. It would seem entirely commensurate with standard procedures that matters of safety and day-to-day management of maritime transport should be paid for by the ship-owner.  Fines should certainly be levied when non-compliance is found. However, it is through a small fee added to all port charges which would cover inspections and testing, and be entirely logical and defensible.  One must also explore the situation where other nations impose such a “ship visit fee” (amounts will vary by port or country), and the UK does not have such fees for the required compliance actions. It is arguable that state aid rules would prevent the UK from subsidising such costs as it could be interpreted as a way of attracting ships to British ports instead of neighbouring European ones. The added cost to responsible ship-owners would be negligible and it is contended that failure to police the new regulations because of concerns for the public purse are entirely misplaced.

Furthermore, given the danger, small or otherwise, of a major health or environmental disaster, a policy of not enforcing the new regulations carries the risk of creating a Grenfell Tower scenario in which “who knew what and when” is thrust centre stage.

What is needed?

The basic requirements are:

  • To start to understand the scale of the problem through the collation of records in a data collection centre as a national repository such as that established in the United States.
  • Inspection procedures in place, which include evaluation of crew knowledge, accurate BW management records, and the ability to sample and analyse ballast water from ships, especially when there is reason for non-compliance to be suspected.

Given the estimated annual cost currently to the UK economy of £1.7 billion to rectify or control the effects of invasive species from ballast water, failure to take these basic steps is economically unjustifiable and any cost/benefit analysis is massively in favour of taking these actions which would amount to a fraction of one percent of this annual economic cost.





It is contended that the need for action to ensure compliance is self-evident, and it is hoped that a wider understanding of the issues will create a climate in which decisions are made to protect our waters and for Britain to re-assume its role at the forefront of leading mankind’s relationship with the sea.

Updated 28/09/2017