October 3 - This weekend saw the passing of a key date for anyone involved in international container shipping.
Saturday (October 1) marked the end of the three-month settling-in period suggested by the IMO to its member states in which competent authorities were urged to adopt a 'practical and pragmatic' approach to the enforcement of the SOLAS revision stipulating all packed containers have a verified gross mass (VGM) before being stowed aboard a ship.
A recent declaration by liner shipping association, the World Shipping Council (WSC), together with feedback from various container terminals, indicates that the current compliance rate is as high as 95 percent.
The WSC told an IMO sub-committee meeting in early September that the requirement for shippers to produce a VGM for each packed container tendered to its member lines for shipment had been met "without any appreciable disruptions to international containerized supply chains."
In addition, it was noted that the compliance rate rose steadily from July 1 onwards, with the WSC confident that this rise will continue.
TT Club's risk management director, Peregrine Storrs-Fox commented: "This high degree of awareness of VGM requirements and the outward signs of compliance are indeed encouraging. However it remains to be seen whether the declared VGMs are accurate, representing the result of an actual weighing process, regardless which of the two permissible methods is adopted."
It is known that certain terminals and carriers have been engaging with shippers over the three-months since July where inaccuracies are apparent. Anecdotal evidence suggests that shippers are, in the main, simply adding the tare mass of the container to the previously declared weight of the cargo to arrive at a VGM.
"While it is positive that shippers recognise the difference between bill of lading or customs declaration weights and VGM, it is insufficient just to add the container mass. The industry needs the comfort of authenticated VGMs comparing the actual mass of packed containers obtained by check-weighing in order to have a true picture of compliance," said Storrs-Fox.
The WSC has also reported that some IT communication challenges have been, and remain significant. Concern has been raised that some terminals have yet to implement the recommended BAPLIE 2.2 EDIFACT message format, which fundamentally restricts their ability to communicate VGMs to carriers.
Where this is the case, TT Club urges immediate action between the counterparties to resolve the situation, not least since it will hinder evidence of compliance being provided to the various port state control authorities.
Post the three-month IMO-recommended period of 'light touch' enforcement that ends on October 1, Storrs-Fox emphasised: "There will remain a need for regulators the world over to continue their work in arriving at a uniform standard of enforcement, including consistency in the degree of latitude given to non-compliant shippers. Even now, there would be value in providing national guidance on such matters, where it has yet to be given."
Robert Keen, director general of the British International Freight Association (BIFA) - the trade association which represents UK freight forwarders - says: "Looking back at the first half of this year and the attention that we gave to the amendments to SOLAS, I was reminded of the so called Millennium Bug from 20 years ago.
"As many of you will remember, it was anticipated there might be a catastrophe at midnight on December 31, 1999 as computer systems would not be able to distinguish between 2000 and 1900 because only the last two digits of the year had been used as technology developed. The gloomiest predictions foresaw aircraft dropping out of the sky and a return to the dark ages. However, remedial work from 1998 overcame the predicted problem.
He says he believes that the reason for the 'extremely high' compliance rates since the new VGM regulations came into force on July 1, 2016 can be attributed to the fact that the three-month grace period has provided some flexibility, helping all the stakeholders in containerised transport to refine procedures for documenting, communicating and sharing electronic verified gross mass data.