Rough seas ahead for container trade?

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A recent change made to the international Safety of Life at Sea — or SOLAS — treaty is raising concerns among shippers, carriers and terminals as the July 1 implementation date looms.

The new amendment requires that all containers and their cargo must be weighed — and that weight verified — before they can be loaded onto a ship.

The impetus for such a rule has many in the maritime business scratching their heads.

While few deny that incorrectly declared container weights can have a serious impact on the safety and stability of vessels, trucks and terminal equipment, many point out that such a regulation has been in place for more than 20 years.

Since 1994, the International Maritime Organization has required shippers to provide container weight information to vessel operators to ensure the boxes are correctly and safely stowed onboard.

The IMO’s new amendment, however, takes that rule a step further, requiring each container to have a signed document, either electronically or on the bill of lading, listing the “verified gross mass” — or VGM — of the container before it can be accepted on board.

The problem, according to the Journal of Commerce, is that there is a lot of frustration among shippers with the lack of information on how the new requirement is to be enforced, what it will cost and who will do the enforcing.

The issue has raised so many questions that the JOC has created an online “Special Topics” page at joc.com for container weights.

“This is one of the most important developments in maritime transport since the introduction of the container itself and the potential for significant disruption on July 1 — or even earlier in the case of some transshipment containers — is considerable,” John Foord, president designate of the Federation of National Associations of Shipbrokers and Agents, told the JOC.

Foord’s organization recently surveyed members in 50 countries and found at least 18 had issued no guidance on the amendment.

Foord called it “staggering” that, with less than three months remaining until enforcement, so many countries had failed to take action to ensure the required measures were in place.

“The SOLAS amendment has been under development for four years, so it is worrying that, at this late stage, ship agents, forwarders and shippers in many countries still lack appropriate guidance as to how they should comply,” he said.

No agreement

In the U.S., container ports are looking at their options, with no real agreement on what they should — and shouldn’t — do.

Still unresolved, at least in the U.S., is whether the VGM document will be created before the box arrives at the port or when it gets there.

According to the JOC’s Peter Tirschwell, different ports are taking different stances.

The Virginia Port Authority has said that, when the rule takes effect, it won’t accept containers without a VGM declaration, joining all 13 terminals at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in not offering weighing services to shippers.

Others, such as the Port of Charleston, are willing to be more accommodating, with South Carolina Ports Authority CEO Jim Newsome saying they will create the VGM on behalf of the shipper, using the port’s existing equipment and process for weighing export containers.

At Georgia Ports, the fourth busiest container terminal in the country, the jury is still out. Both outgoing port director Curtis Foltz and incoming director Griff Lynch are traveling outside the country this week.

But others in the maritime community have raised the question of how GPA, with some 10,000 gate turns a day, could add another step and maintain its unprecedented efficiency.

“That just doesn’t make sense,” said Rhett Willis, president and CEO of D.J. Powers Co. Inc., an international freight forwarder and logistics provider with headquarters in Savannah.

Willis said he has more than a few questions that have yet to be answered.

“What actual authority does the IMO have within U.S. commerce? Who is responsible for enforcing this regulation? How much is it going to cost? Isn’t there a way this could be accomplished without reinventing the wheel?

“And that’s just for starters,” he said.

“The IMO has taken it upon themselves to impose a sweeping regulation with little consideration of the effects on commerce,” he said.

“Containers can be checked by tweaking required paperwork and methods already in place,” he said. “It doesn’t have to disrupt commerce and place an undue burden on shippers.”

As it is currently written, Willis said, the rule is impractical in application.

“There is no enforcement mechanism, the costs will be high for the perceived benefits and , most importantly, it will disrupt supply chains at ports across the globe.

“I really see no way it can go forward.”

Congress will weigh in next week with a hearing on the impact the rule will have on U.S. exporters.

Following are the ships expected to call on Georgia Ports Authority’s Garden City and Ocean terminals this week. Schedules are supplied by GPA and are subject to change.

TERMINAL VESSEL ETA

GCT MAERSK WEYMOUTH Today

GCT MAERSK DENVER Today

GCT ZIM HAIFA Today

GCT MSC VANESSA Today

GCT MSC BEIJING Today

GCT MAERSK WINNIPEG Today

GCT SANTA BETTINA Saturday

GCT MSC METHONI Saturday

GCT CAFER DEDE Saturday

GCT MATAQUITO Saturday

GCT HANJIN MONACO Saturday

GCT MAERSK KURE Saturday

GCT YORKTOWN EXPRESS Sunday

GCT NEWLEAD GRANADINO Sunday

GCT CSCL AFRICA Sunday

GCT SPIRIT OF LISBON Sunday

GCT LENA-S Sunday

GCT DEIRA Sunday

GCT CHARLESTON EXPRESS Sunday

GCT HANJIN MIAMI Sunday

OT GRANDE SENEGAL Sunday

OT TULANE Sunday

OT SUPRASTAR Sunday

GCT SEA-LAND CHARGER Monday

GCT MAERSK DETROIT Monday

GCT OOCL ASIA Monday

GCT OOCL MEMPHIS Monday

GCT MAERSK SOFIA Monday

GCT JONATHAN SWIFT Tuesday

GCT ZIM CONSTANZA Tuesday

GCT NYK REMUS Tuesday

GCT MSC KLEVEN Tuesday

GCT YANTIAN EXPRESS Tuesday

OT TIJUCA Tuesday

OT STAR KIRKENES Tuesday

GCT MOL ENDOWMENT Wednesday

GCT AL RAWDAH Wednesday

GCT JPO VULPECULA Wednesday

GCT NYK CONSTELLATION Wednesday

GCT VEGA SACHSEN Wednesday

OT TOLEDO Wednesday

GCT NYK DAEDALUS Thursday

GCT MSC RACHELE Thursday

GCT OCTAVIA Thursday

GCT HELSINKI BRIDGE Thursday

GCT ATLANTIC ALTAIR Thursday

GCT IRENES REMEDY Thursday

GCT MSC LAURA Thursday

GCT MAERSK KOTKA Thursday

GCT HANJIN BUENOS AIRES Thursday

OT OBERON Thursday
Source: SavannahNow