SOLAS Container Weight Guidelines Not Mandatory According to U.S. Coast Guard

At the TPM Conference hosted by the Journal of Commerce (JOC) in Long Beach, California,  U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Thomas clarified that while the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) container weight verification rules will be mandatory, the guidelines on how to do so are not. “They (the guidelines) are not mandatory under SOLAS, they are not mandatory under any U.S. regulation. It says that right on top – these are non-mandatory guidelines,” he said in a panel discussion on the verified gross mass rule. “The guidelines in this case provide one path to compliance with the mandatory amendments, but it is not the only pathway and the guidelines themselves are not part of the mandatory SOLAS requirements,” he said in an email after the panel.

As far as the Coast Guard was concerned, complying with the VGM rule was a business procedure issue. “SOLAS places no legal obligation on the shipper. It places a legal obligation only on the vessel subject to SOLAS. So if you need to meet that obligation by working on a better business practice with your partners, that’s where you need to focus,” Thomas said. His comments raised the eyebrows of representatives of ocean transportation businesses, as the onus  was put on the shippers and terminals to find ways to comply with the new regulations.

As the implementation date approaches, an unsettled cargo transport industry is still confounded on how to fully comply with the upcoming container weight regulations being enforced by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Amendments made to the International Convention for the SOLAS by the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee will require all shippers appearing on the bill of lading to verify the gross container weight of their goods before shipment. The amendments to SOLAS will help to reduce the amount of losses and general safety issues surrounding mis-declared cargo weight. However, with little details on how to comply with the ruling, many cargo companies are feeling frustrated in their search for answers. What we know right now:

  • The implementation date for the IMO’s new container weight regulations is July 1st, 2016.

  • After taking effect, the rule will  require shippers whose name appears on the bill of lading to verify the gross mass of a container carrying cargo when tendering the container to the ocean carriers and terminals. To be clear, the legally responsible party for providing a verified gross mass (VGM) signed either electronically or on paper is the shipper. This is regardless of who packs the container.

  • On July 1 the rule becomes not just international law under the IMO, but also national law within the 162 countries that are signatories to the SOLAS convention. With no set procedures, rules and legal enforcement are likely to vary widely among countries, ocean carriers and marine terminals. This is where many shippers are seeking clarification from SOLAS signatory governments and the IMO. What has been verified is that the SOLAS guidelines put out by the U.S. Coast Guard are not mandatory, and that the different business interests involved will have to work with their partners to find the best way to comply.

More than half of shippers surveyed by Intrra in October of last year said they expected either minor or major disruptions due to these new regulations. It is with that sentiment that there are growing public calls for the rule to be delayed or at least phased in, even though it appears to be a remote possibility. According to Anne Kappel, vice president of the World Shipping Council, the VGM will be enforced on July 1 and it is now up to the SOLAS member countries to enforce it. Fortunately there are private efforts underway to develop an electronic form for shippers to submit their VGM on their container shipments to carriers a few days before the ship comes ashore, giving ample time for carriers to create their stowage plans. Many shippers also have longstanding procedures to measure cargo weight, which they believe will be sufficient enough to comply with the new rules.

We will continue to provide updates as more information is available. Stay tuned. Click here to view the JOC‘s shippers guide to the container weight mandate.