MARPOL compliance and distances ‘from the nearest land’

Kristin Urdahl, Senior Loss Prevention Executive at Gard, based at Arendal, Norway, has written a piece on the disposal of unprocessed food waste at sea.

MARPOL permits unprocessed food waste to be discharged into the sea from vessels proceeding at a distance not less than 12nm from the nearest land.

Urdahl noted that, while this might sound straightforward, in the real world it was anything but. Coastal states do not define their ‘nearest land boundary’ in a uniform way.

Gard’s Chinese correspondent Hutatai Marine has recently noted that vessels trading to China were regularly being fined for non-compliance with garbage discharge provisions in Chinese waters, most often for illegal dumping of food wastes.

In its circular PNI[2022]08, the correspondent explained that the Chinese requirements for discharges of food wastes were generally no stricter than those set forth in MARPOL Annex V. The main reason for penalties being imposed was that vessels’ garbage procedures, and nautical charts, were insufficiently clear on the coordinates of Chinese sea areas in which the discharge of food wastes was prohibited.

A Gard Member’s vessel was detained in Ningbo Port a while ago for illegally discharging food waste into Chinese waters. The vessel’s log book showed that it had been approaching Ningbo Port at the time of the alleged incident and that the crew had taken all necessary precautions to ensure that the vessel was at least 12nm from the Chinese shore before discharging any food waste.

Gard said that it had received reports of vessels being penalized in Australia for the same reasons. In one case the alleged incident took place when the vessel was proceeding at 13nm from shore, or more precisely, from an island off the north-east coast of mainland Australia.

In both these cases, the vessel was positioned more than 12 nm from the respective country’s shoreline when discharging its food wastes.

The MARPOL Convention prohibits discharge into the sea of nearly all forms of garbage, including plastic. It does, however, contain a specific exemption for food waste. Under MARPOL Annex V, discharge into the sea of food waste is permitted while the vessel is en route and as far as practicable from the nearest land, but in any case, not less than 3 nm from the nearest land if the discharged food waste has been comminuted or ground, and not less than 12 nm for unprocessed food waste.

Although stricter discharge standards do apply in “Special Areas”, neither China nor Australia have designated any Special Areas for the purposes of MARPOL Annex V.

When discharge standards under MARPOL require you to be a specified distance from the nearest land, the term ‘from nearest land’ generally means from a country’s territorial sea baseline. One important exception to this general definition is that on the north-eastern coast of Australia, Australia’s nearest land boundary extends around the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) region. Therefore discharges permitted under MARPOL must be measured seaward of this boundary. The IMO has designated the GBR region as a particularly sensitive sea area (PSSA) and additional protection measures, such as ship routeing systems and restricted discharges, apply to vessels that transit the region.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s (AMSA) website provides an overview of the key requirements with its article “Navigation through the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait”.

Inconsistent application of the interpretation as to how far away is 12nm from the coast stems from the fact that usually the baseline for establishing the territorial sea is drawn at the low-water line, as stated in official charts. However, a number of countries have established baselines as straight lines between prominent coastal features. Others claim “archipelagic status”, with baselines joining outlying islands. Such countries’ baselines can therefore lie many nautical miles off their coasts.

In the Chinese case mentioned above, the crew was not aware that China had declared straight baselines along parts of its coast. A Chinese declaration of May 15th 1996 meant that the baseline off Ningbo Port is drawn between points situated on two fairly remote islands. It basically pushes the territorial sea limit further seaward. Hence, the crew had discharged food waste at a position well beyond the 12 nm limit as measured from China’s shoreline, but within Chinese waters according to the 1996 declaration.

Huatai Marine noted that partly enclosed sea areas, such as the Bohai Sea, were generally considered Chinese inland waters.

In the Australian case, the crew had discharged food waste at a position well beyond the 12 nm limit as measured from Australia’s territorial baseline, but they failed to recognize that the vessel was operating within the GBR region.

In both cases the crews had acted in good faith at all times and there was no attempt to deliberately circumvent the requirements of MARPOL.

Gard concluded that, while in the two cases described above, discharges were related to MARPOL Annex V and garbage, other discharges from vessels controlled by the MARPOL Convention also have a minimum distance from the nearest land requirement that must be met.

“Masters must make sure that environmental issues are considered in voyage and passage planning. Areas where specific marine environmental measures apply should be noted in the detailed passage plan. IMO’s circular MEPC.1/Circ.778/Rev.3 provides an overview of all Special Areas defined under MARPOL Annexes I, II and V and Emission Control Areas (ECAs) defined under MARPOL Annex VI. “, said Gard.

In addition, operators should ensure that vessel procedures, such as the Garbage Management Plan and Record Book, and nautical charts, contained all relevant information and were up to date.

AMSA has said that vessels that dis not carry adequate and up-to-date nautical charts might be detained.

Relying on unofficial charts would demonstrate inadequate voyage planning under a vessel’s safety management system. It might also indicate that a vessel may be in an unfit state for the voyage or poses a threat to the environment, said AMSA