With AIS and modern ship tracking systems in use throughout the world, you would think it would be just as easy to track the origin of ballast waters that are discharged from ships, too. However, their sources are not that simple to uncover.
Ballast, the water carried in vessels to provide stability and trim when they are light, is utilized in a wide range of marine craft: cruise ships, large tankers and bulk cargo carriers. As described on the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System website, ballast provides stability and trim, lessens hull stresses, assists in maneuvering, and reduces roll and pitch. To maintain proper stability, as a ship takes on cargo, ballast is discharged; as a ship offloads cargo, ballast is taken in. At times, in transit, ballast may also be taken up or discharged depending upon weather and water conditions as well as fuel and water consumption aboard ship.
Due to the placement of the bell mouths of ballast tank lines, ballast water is never completely emptied from the tanks. Thus, a mixture of a number of waters is what makes up the usual ballast.
Ballast is a global issue. When vessels uptake ballast water, they also receive marine organisms and sediment. Natural biological barriers become ineffective in keeping an ecological balance in waterways, harbors, and even the deep ocean around the world. Bacteria, fish larvae, microbes, eggs, flora all get swept up in ballast uptake operations. Introduction of non-native species damage the environment and can negatively impact the local fishing industry by depletion of native fish stocks. Ballast can pollute by bringing pathogens and harmful particulate matter to distant locations.
Photo Credit: The North Sea Ballast Water Opportunity Project
According to the International Marine Organization (IMO), “the spread of invasive species is now recognized as one of the greatest threats to the ecological and the economic well being of the planet.”
The IMO began to address this issue in its Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) with a 2004 Ballast Water Management Convention. However, ten years later, the convention has yet to be ratified. One of the issues was when the new requirements would be effective. Proponents recommended immediate activation, but others asked that it go into force at a ship's first renewal survey after activation.
As reported on the Environmental Leader website, a new Ballast Water Management Convention was held in December, 2013. It was agreed to allow installation of necessary equipment after a ship's first renewal survey. This effectively delays enforcement of the convention for an additional five years. The convention involves regulations that require ship owners to install ballast water treatment plants, appropriately train personnel, and maintain a ballast water management plan. The treatment plant alone could cost between $500,000 and $4 million. Dry dock, installation and training are additional costs.
The newly amended convention has been ratified by the necessary 30 countries. As soon as a second requirement has been met, the convention will go into effect. This requirement is that the agreeing countries must account for 35 percent of global shipping tonnage; at present, the ratifying countries (there are 38) account for only 29 percent of the needed tonnage, according to the website Maritime Executive. Several small nations as well as three-quarters of European Union members have not yet signed.