A top United States Coast Guard
officer says the agency is not planning any special effort to enforce new
regulations having to do with shipping container weights.
On July 1, an amendment to the
International Maritime Organization’s Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention
will go into effect, requiring shippers to certify and submit the verified
gross mass of containers before they are loaded on to vessels.
The new requirement has created a
great deal of concern and distress by shippers, to the degree that earlier this
week, one group of shippers, the Agriculture Transportation Coalition said it
was concerned the rule would “create major turmoil at the
marine terminals and a very significant impediment to U.S. exports."
AgTC even suggested a possible
Congressional inquiry into how the IMO, an arm of the United Nations of which
the U.S. has been a member since 1950, creates conventions and “the means by
which the United States can be bound, and how this rule was adopted without US
exporter or importer notice or input, or consideration of impact on the U.S.
“When people ask me about guidance
and enforcement my answer to that, is we intend to enforce this the way we
always have,” Rear Admiral Paul Thomas, assistant commandant for prevention
policy at the U.S. Coast Guard, told American Shipper. “And quite honestly we haven’t needed to conduct
a robust enforcement.”
Thomas said he will attend a
“listening session” to be held on Feb. 18 at 2 p.m. at the Federal Maritime
Commission offices in Washington D.C. in order to “understand better what the
industry thinks has changed here."
Both Thomas and the World Shipping
Council, a trade organization that represents container liner companies, in a point-by-point rebuttal to the AgTC position paper, noted that there is an existing requirement in
SOLAS that prior to loading cargo on a ship, shippers provide “a general
description of the cargo, the gross mass of the cargo or of the cargo units,
and any relevant special properties of the cargo” and that “the shipper shall
ensure that the gross mass of such units is in accordance with the gross mass
declared on the shipping documents.”
WSC also notes Customs requires
shippers to provide the gross mass of the goods as well as net mass excluding
dunnage for advance manifest reporting purposes.
According to WSC, lack of enforcement
of the requirement to provide the gross mass of cargo units and the lack of
definition as to what the term “ensure” actually embodies "help explain the
background for the IMO decision to amend SOLAS" with the new verified
gross mass requirements.
Thomas says the amendments that go
into effect July 1 don't actually change any shipper requirements, but instead
"clarify how the requirements will be met.”
AgTC, for example, called the
amendments "a dramatic change from current practices. Currently the
shipper is responsible to accurately report the weight of its cargo. The
shipper does not own, control, or maintain the containers which are owned/leased
by the carriers."
But according to Thomas, “There is an
existing requirement that’s been in place for decades that shippers provide the
gross mass of the shipping unit, which means the cargo and the container on the
declared shipping document.” He added the regulation now uses the word
“container” since containers have been in use so long.
“The amendment simply clarifies how
that gross mass will be determined, it introduces the term ‘verified gross
mass,’ which is just a change in kind of the art of how it’s talked about, and
it introduces a requirement that the shipper sign the document with the
verified gross mass. So although there are some changes, the requirement to
provide the gross mass of the cargo unit is not a new one.
“I am totally happy to accept however
they have been doing it for the last three decades,” he said. “And if that
means that in the past the shippers provided part of the information and the
ocean carrier the other part, or whatever, however they’ve done it.
"The clarification that’s in the
new regulation says there’s two ways that you can verify the gross mass. If the
U.S. shippers have a different way that they’ve been doing it, what matters is
that the master has the information that he or she needs to load the ship safely."
Thomas said he thinks much of the
confusion surrounding the "new" requirements lie not with the
regulations themselves, but with enforcement.
“Although the SOLAS requirement puts
the burden on the shipper, the SOLAS enforcement options can’t touch a
shipper," he said. "So if for whatever reason we feel like the
verified gross mass is not accurate — I’m not sure what would trigger that —
but if we found that it wasn’t accurate, the enforcement action would be either
to require the ship to offload that container if it was on the ship, before
they sailed, or to just put a hold on that container in the yard until the
verified gross mass is known.
"But that has always been the
enforcement options on these things. I think that’s widely misunderstood."
“I think the other thing that’s
widely misunderstood is that there are a number of other SOLAS requirements
that require the master of the ship to understand the weight of his cargo
because the master of the ship under SOLAS Chapter 2 is responsible for the
stability of the vessel and is responsible for all the information required to
assess the stability of the vessel and that would include the cargo weight
including the container weight," he added. "And then there is another
requirement under the International Safety Management Code that also requires
the ship operator to have all the information needed in order to operate the
“So all those things combined would
lead you to conclude that for years this hasn’t been a problem, so that is why
we are going to hold this listening session so I can understand better what the
industry thinks has changed here.”
Thomas was also quick to point out
that it's more likely that positive reinforcement — i.e. figuring out how this
can help the parties involved — will bring about meaningful change, rather than
“The best solution here is a business
arrangement, it’s not aggressive enforcement by the Coast Guard for a couple of
reasons. One, is that enforcement would be mostly against the ship operator,
and two, it’s not going to help us move the cargo that we need to move.”
Thomas says he has been told there
was very little debate on the container weight rule when it was adopted by the
IMO, which he believes reflects the fact that the body is dominated by ship
operators and not shippers.
The operators are ultimately
“responsible for the safe operation of the ship and you can’t operate a ship
safely without knowing the gross mass of the cargo that you’re putting on.”
During inspections of exports, he
says the Coast Guard will look at hazardous material, and “we’ll probably look
the verified gross mass on the shipping documents. But I would tell you unless
there is a real reason for us to suspect that that just can’t be accurate we
won’t be weighing our containers.”
“Again, this is a business
arrangement that I believe the market needs to drive good behavior here."
"If a particular master were to
call us and say, I have a number of containers where they haven’t provided VGM
or I don’t think VGM is accurate then we would respond to that, but again the
enforcement action in that case would be simply to put a hold on those
containers until the VGM is established.”
He says “flag states,” the country
where a ship is registered, are responsible for ensuring that a vessel meets
“Unless we had good reason to believe
that the flag state hadn’t done what they’re supposed to do with regard to
compliance with this regulation, we wouldn’t be looking at it.”
In its rebuttal to the AgTC position
paper, the WSC noted that shipper groups such as the Global Shippers Forum and
National Industrial Transportation League supported the final regulations and
that shipper input is why the regulation can be met by either driving a
container truck onto a scale and subtracting the weight of chassis and cab or
weighing the items being put into a container and packing materials and adding
it to the tare weight of the container.
WSC disputes that implementation of
the SOLAS rule will impose new costs or disrupt the flow of cargo through ports.
If costs are higher "because
estimation, not weighing, is currently being used to provide the weight of the
packed container to the carrier, then this confirms that the current SOLAS
requirement have not been effective and need to be complemented" with the
new amendments, the group said.