A solution to alien invasive species?

On 8 September, 2017, a major step will be taken to preserve and protect the marine environment from alien invasive species when the International Convention for the Control of Ship’s Ballast Water and Sediments, 2004 (Ballast Water Convention) comes into force.

The problem of alien invasive species in the marine environment is one of the greatest threats to the world’s oceans and a major problem for the ecological and economic well-being of the planet. The main vector for the introduction of these species is through their transportation from their native environments in the ballast water of ships and their release into new environments on the discharge of the ballast water at the end of a ship’s voyage. It is estimated that 3,000 species are transferred to new environments in the ballast water of ships every day. Once introduced into the new environments alien species often thrive and out-compete native species resulting in whole ecosystems being changed. Once introduced alien species are impossible to remove.

In the last twenty years, preventing the introduction of alien marine species through management and control of ballast water has been recognised as a pressing need. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOSC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) oblige parties to take steps to prevent the introduction of alien species which threaten significant and harmful changes to the marine environment, but they give no guidance as to how this is to be achieved. Various Guidelines have been produced but they are non-binding. In the absence of an international solution, some States have introduced their own domestic legislation but this is clearly inadequate to address what is essentially an international problem.

As a consequence of Agenda 21 adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 and at the urging of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, the IMO adopted a free-standing and binding international convention to deal with the problem of ballast water. The Ballast Water Convention seeks to manage and control ballast water by the creation of a process which includes a Ballast Water Sediments Management Plan and a Ballast Water Management Standard. The Annex to the Convention describes requirements and regulations under the Ballast Water Management and Standard. The acceptable standard prior to 2016 was achieved by the exchange of ballast water in the open ocean. According to the implementation timing in the Annex, from 2016, prior to discharge, ballast water would have needed to be treated on board the ship by a method approved by the IMO. However recent changes to the implementation measures by the IMO means that only vessels built after its entry into force on September 8, 2017 will immediately be subject to the new ballast water performance standard. Other vessels will be exempt until their first renewal survey after September 8, 2019. Such surveys typically take place every five years. Thus, some vessels will have until 2024 to comply. For such ships it would appear that ballast water exchange is still an accepted management standard until such time as the convention applies to them.

The Ballast Water Convention is not a perfect instrument but it is a major advance on the current situation of diverse domestic legislation and voluntary Guidelines. Adherence should bring the international community one step closer to the eventual eradication of alien invasive species.


Dr Anthony Morrison is Research Fellow. Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong, and StevensVuaran Lawyers’ maritime law consultant.

August 24
Maritime Law