Fact: Ballast water management systems (BWMSs) don’t remove every single organism in a ship’s ballast. Fact: Testing standards are not defined well enough to spot every living thing in a sample. Conclusion: Let’s not bother with all this ballast treatment nonsense.
That is the logic behind my headline: if a goal is unattainable, it deters us from even doing the best we can. Instead, we have to accept that ‘good enough’ is actually good enough.
This seems to be the argument made by staff at the Golden Bear Research Center in the US at the end of February in response to what they saw as the “pessimistic tone” in a media report about the closure of two testing centres, MERC in the US and DHI in Singapore.
Golden Bear’s researchers’ underlying message was that, despite everything, things are pretty good. Their own tests show a huge reduction in organisms after water has gone through a BWMS and they said that “a one-million-fold reduction in anthropogenic ballast water organism transport is cause for celebration, not criticism.”
Are they right? Of course they are. But that’s not the whole story, because test results and trading reality aren’t the same and there is still a way to go before that reality is good enough to be ‘good enough’.
Someone who understands this is the Seoul-based marine specialist for the UK’s Department for International Trade. I spoke to him in London last month and his view is that type-approval certificates simply confirm that a system performed properly during its tests. “During the whole period of a ship’s life, who can guarantee the persistence and robustness of their system?” he said.
Another interesting conversation I had last month was with two executives from a company carrying out port-based testing in Saudi Arabia. They are doing indicative tests using a proprietary kit, so this doesn’t count as port state control testing, but one of their findings is that ballast water exchange seems to be as effective – maybe even better – than using treatment plants.
But if we can’t be certain that a system will work properly for its lifetime and if treatment doesn’t appear to be as good as a simple exchange, why bother?
This is where we came in: we bother because, although we might not achieve perfection, we can do better than we currently are – both technically and from a regulatory point of view. The Golden Bears agree with that. There are “shortcomings [in] existing regulations,” the facility’s chief engineer told me and I have asked him and his team what they think, realistically, is achievable in fixing those shortcomings.
They’re going to get back to me about that and I am perfectly sure I’ll get a good reply.