UN agencies, shipping corporations to tackle environmental threats

March 2, 2009

A Global Industry Alliance (GIA) was launched today at the Headquarters of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in London, to tackle the threats of marine bio-invasions caused by the transfer of alien plants and animals in ships’ ballast tanks. Ballast water is carried in cargo ships to provide needed stability. It is taken onboard at the start of every trip an unladen ship makes and then pumped out on arrival.

The Alliance, made up of an innovative partnership between the International Maritime Organization (IMO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and four major private shipping corporations, aims to harness the different skills and expertise brought by these groups in order to develop concrete solutions to this global environmental hazard.

IMO Secretary-General Efthimios Mitropoulos, who exchanged Memoranda of Understanding with the four companies, said he would like to see the GIA serving as a model for more such alliances, “all embracing the goals of corporate social responsibility and addressing the many safety, security and environmental protection issues that characterize today’s shipping industry,” he said.

According to IMO’s findings, an estimated 10 billion tonnes of ballast water are being carried around the globe each year, and more than 3,000 species of plants and marine organisms are being transferred daily. As a result, a serious environmental threat has developed, caused by the introduction of exotic species to new ecosystems threatening biodiversity, fisheries and aquaculture. The damage done by these alien species is costing the world billions of dollars.

“The scope of this achievement should not be underestimated; I rank the responsiveness of the international community to this issue as one of the world’s best examples of international cooperation on a global environmental issue, on par with how the world took decisive steps to address ozone-depleting substances through the Montreal Protocol,” said Andrew Hudson, UNDP’s expert on water governance.

In many areas of the world, the effects of it have been devastating since once these invasive species are established they are extremely difficult to eradicate. For example, the introduction of the comb jelly (mnemiopsis leidyi) to the Black and Azov Sea caused a near extinction of anchovy and sprat fisheries and the introduction of the zebra mussel (dreissena polymorpha) in the Great Lakes required multibillion dollar control and cleaning of underwater structures and pipelines.

Recognizing the significance of the global environmental threat from ballast water transfer of such harmful species, the international community has developed a regulatory framework for ballast water management, culminating in the adoption of the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships' Ballast Water and Sediments by IMO member States in 2004.

The problem is due largely to the expansion of seaborne trade and traffic over the last century. When cargo ships are not loaded, they pump water into their ballast tanks in order to maintain stability on their way to pick up cargo. Once the ships are loaded with heavy cargo, they discharge the water from within the ship into the sea or ocean. Alien and potentially harmful invasive species are released with the discharged water. So far, very little of this ballast water is being managed in a way that minimizes the spread of these marine invaders and new invasions are being recorded at an alarming rate.

The Alliance will contribute to research and development of cost effective ballast water treatment technologies that can be fitted onboard ships. In addition, it will assist with exploring new ship design options such as 'flow thru' ballast tanks and ‘ballast-free ships’. The Alliance aims to promote the transfer and diffusion of technology within the industry by opening a ballast water information exchange mechanism, developing training tools targeted at the maritime industry and establishing an industry dialogue forum.

The agreement signed today forming the GIA was initiated by GloBallast Partnerships – a joint initiative founded by IMO, UNDP and GEF. The Alliance is hosted by IMO in London. To date, four major shipping corporations - APL, BP Shipping, Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, and Vela Marine International – have signed on to this partnership. More shipping corporations have expressed their interest to join.