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Friday, October 26, 2018 

Insurer Gard’s latest ‘Insight’ publication reminds ship operators that MARPOL regulations permit unprocessed food waste to be discharged into the sea from vessels proceeding at a distance not less than 12 nautical miles (nm) from the nearest land. But this is less straightforward than it seems – not all coastal states define their ‘nearest land boundary’ in the same way.

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. 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. There is, however, one exception to this general definition. On the north eastern coast of Australia, Australia’s nearest land boundary extends around the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) region and discharges permitted under MARPOL must be measured seaward of this boundary.

Gard says that recently one of its members was penalised for discharging food waste into Australian waters. The alleged incident took place when the vessel was proceeding at 13 nm from shore, or more precisely, from an island off the north-east coast of mainland Australia. The crew believed they had discharged the waste at a position well beyond the 12 nm limit measured from Australia’s territorial baseline but failed to recognise that the vessel was operating within the GBR region.

In another incident, a member was penalised in China for the same reasons, that is, for illegally discharging food waste into Chinese waters. According to this vessel’s log book, it had been approaching Ningbo Port at the time of the alleged incident and the crew had taken all necessary precautions to ensure that the vessel was at least 12 nm from the Chinese shore before discharging any food waste. But this vessel fell foul of the regulations because China’s territorial sea is defined not by the normal method, i.e. from a baseline drawn at the low-water line, as stated in official charts, but by straight lines between prominent coastal features and/or with baselines joining outlying islands. Such countries’ baselines can therefore lie many nautical miles off their coasts.

The baseline off Ningbo Port is drawn between points situated on two fairly remote islands and 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 failed to recognise that the vessel was still operating within Chinese waters.

In both cases the crews had acted in good faith at all times and there was no attempt to deliberately circumvent MARPOL. Gard reminds Masters to make sure that such environmental issues are fully considered in voyage and passage planning, while operators must ensure that vessel procedures, such as the Garbage Management Plan, and nautical charts contain all relevant information and are up to date.

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