container © Artranq
© Artranq

The IMO’s senior deputy director for marine technology and cargoes, maritime safety division, Joseph Westwood-Booth, told a packed audience at the ICHCA conference in Barcelona yesterday he wanted to make it “perfectly clear” that there would be “no delays” to the SOLAS amendment on VGM (verified gross mass) determination for containers.

With less than 120 days to go before mandatory container weighing verification before shipment comes into force in 170 countries, the issue was the subject of considerable debate on the second day of ICHCA’s Bigger Ships, Greater Challenges conference.

Mr Westwood-Booth said it was a regulation that had been requested by the industry after a catalogue of incidents and casualties, and had been prompted directly or indirectly by the unregulated manner in which container weights had hitherto been declared.

Furthermore, he said, not one of the 170 countries that had signed up to the regulation had requested exemption.

A succession of industry speakers urged stakeholders to review their system readiness for providing VGM ahead of the 1 July deadline, and it was noted that, in practice, the effective date could be several weeks earlier depending on the status of a container in the supply chain.

For example, a container delivered to a terminal several weeks before shipment on or after 1 July, will need a VGA. But so will a container scheduled for shipment before that date if the sailing is delayed past 1 July.

Captain Richard Brough, technical advisor for ICHCA, said shippers needed to discuss their chosen method of VGM with their carriers to ensure they were compliant with the shipping line’s cut off for providing stowage information for vessels.

A round table industry panel agreed that shippers would need a raft of options to assist them with the new regulations. These include a number of innovative products for weighing the container at shippers’ premises, to the ‘last resort’ of a weighing facility at the port of departure.

Although initially reluctant, port operators facing the prospect of turning away large numbers of non-compliant containers on 1 July, are starting to announce facilities that will enable VGM to be determined at the export terminal. The UK’s two biggest container ports, Felixstowe and Southampton, have said they will offer weighing facilities, although the details are yet to be announced.

One difficulty of charging for container weighing at ports is that, in general terms, container terminals do not have contracts with shippers, only with container lines, and would not relish the prospect of the extra administration involved.

Chris Welsh, secretary general of the Global Shippers Forum, agreed that, at least in the early stages of the new regulations, “shippers will probably want to use the full range of weighing options” on offer to them to assist them to comply and ensure there is no delay to shipment.

He accepted that the SOLAS regulation amendment was “going to take some bedding down”, but said it was important to avoid scaremongering, believing that the “industry would overcome the introduction of mandatory weighing”.

Capt Brough said he expected a “soft landing” for the new regulations on 1 July, with the relevant national authorities taking a pragmatic approach to contraventions in the early weeks.

Meanwhile, Peregrine Storrs-Fox, risk management director at the TT Club, said the new weighing regulations were an important first step in tightening up the lax inherent practices of the 60-year-old container industry, particularly relating to the stowage and misdeclaration of cargo.

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