22.02.12

Ship-Generated Garbage and the Caribbean Sea

Krishna Desai
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Jamaica's proximity to traditional international shipping lanes and the Panama Canal, along with her long standing relationship with ports in the Americas and with those in neighbouring Caribbean territories makes shipping a very important part of the Jamaican economy.  In 2010 shipping accounted for over 90% of Jamaica's international trade and our ports received over 3,600 ship calls.  These stop over vessels and the commercial shipping traffic which passes through our waters, along with locally-based and visiting pleasure boats pose a risk to Jamaica's important and fragile marine environment. 

The potential impact from shipping includes impacts from oil spills, improperly treated sewage, the release of invasive species from ballast water, groundings on coral reefs, and pollution from ship-generated waste.  All these impacts need to be properly managed so as to protect our marine environment.  One simple illustration of the pervasive nature of this pollution is that a plastic bottle thrown overboard may take up to 400 years to break down, and during that time such pollution can move great distances and cause negative impacts to marine life. 

While the marine environment is subject to a number of international treaties, one treaty stands out in the extent to which it addresses the impact from shipping, and in particular the pollution generated from shipping.  This treaty is called MARPOL, and it is implemented by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).  Jamaica is a State party to MARPOL which came into force for the country in 1991. The treaty seeks to prevent marine pollution by setting a framework internationally to address oil, noxious liquid substances carried in bulk, harmful substances carried in packaged form, sewage, garbage, and air pollution.

Of significance is that in May 2011 the Caribbean Sea was accorded by the IMO and Caribbean states with the designation as a "Special Area".  This designation allows States to place strict restrictions on the disposal into the sea of ship-generated garbage.  The Caribbean Sea was so designated due to the recognition of the special oceanographic and ecological conditions and the character of shipping traffic which exists in the region. 

Ships trading in the Caribbean, including pleasure crafts, are prohibited from discharging ship-generated garbage (such as plastics, paper products, rags, glass, metals, crockery, dunnage and packing materials) overboard into the sea.  Jamaica, along with the other Caribbean countries, will be able to enforce stricter standards on ships calling at its ports and marinas or when they are transiting through Jamaica's territorial waters.  Instead of disposing of garbage in our seas, ships are required to dispose of garbage at land-based waste reception facilities. 

  As MARPOL is an international treaty there is a requirement for the treaty to be transformed into local laws so as to bring the treaty into effect in Jamaica.  After a significant amount of work by the government and other stakeholders this local law is now being developed.

In the interim the existing legal framework for dealing with impacts from garbage generated by ships is limited but there are a number of statutes dealing with natural resources, shipping, solid waste, public health and quarantines that can be applied to deal with pollution from ships and to regulate the interested parties in the shipping industry.

In anticipation of specific legislation bringing the obligations related to the prohibition of the disposal of garbage into the sea under MARPOL into force, and in recognition of the inadequate local waste reception facilities, the government have developed guidelines (the Draft Jamaica National Guidelines on the collection and disposal of MARPOL 73/78 Annex V Wastes) to manage ship generated garbage and to set down the procedure by which a ship can dispose of its garbage in a landfill in Jamaica.

The designation of the Caribbean Sea as a Special Area is an important step to protect our marine environment, and understanding the forthcoming local legislative backing will be important to all maritime interests, whether they be Ship Operators/Masters, Ship Agents, Port Operators, or Waste Contractors so that the objective of protecting the marine environment is achieved, and so as to avoid any sanction and consequent delay to the voyage of vessels.

Krishna Desai is an Associate at Myers, Fletcher & Gordon and is a member of the firm's Litigation and Marine Departments.  Krishna may be contacted via krishna.desai@mfg.com.jm or www.myersfletcher.com. This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.