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Rules of the Road: Know how to define ballast, tanks to meet new rules


Rules of the Road: by Capt. Jake Desvergers

With the seasonal repositioning of most yachts and the months ahead to be spent in the northern areas of the United States, it is important to remember a regulation that not only contributes to improved environmental standards, but also can provide a headache for those unprepared: Ballast Water Management.

While ballast water is essential for safe and efficient modern shipping operations, it may pose serious ecological, economic and health problems due to the multitude of marine species carried in ships’ ballast water. These include bacteria, microbes, small invertebrates, eggs, cysts and larvae of various species. The transferred species may survive to establish a reproductive population in the host environment, becoming invasive, out-competing native species, and multiplying into pest proportions.

Invasive aquatic species present a major threat to marine ecosystems. Shipping, which includes yachts, has been identified as a major pathway for introducing species to new environments.

Scientists first recognized the signs of an alien species introduction after a mass occurrence of Asian phytoplankton algae in the North Sea in 1903. But it was not until the 1970s that the scientific community began reviewing the problem in detail. In the late 1980s, Canada and Australia were among countries experiencing problems with invasive species. They brought their concerns to the attention of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC).

The effects of the introduction of new species have, in many areas of the world, been devastating. Quantitative data shows that the rate of bio-invasions is continuing to increase at an alarming rate. As seaborne movements continue to increase, the problem may not yet have reached its peak.

Regretfully, as history has shown, rather than implement preventative regulations, the marine industry prefers to take a reactionary stance. Its latest reaction can be seen in the Ballast Water Management Convention. Adopted in 2004, this regulation aims to prevent the spread of harmful aquatic organisms from one region to another. It establishes standards and procedures for the management and control of ships’ ballast water and sediments. The Convention enters into force on Sept. 8.

Under the Convention, all ships in international trade, including yachts, are required to manage their ballast water and sediments. This management must be done according to a ship-specific ballast water management plan. All ships will also have to carry a ballast water record book and an international ballast water management certificate.

The most stringent of the ballast water management standards will be phased in over a period of time. As an intermediate solution, ships may be able to exchange ballast water mid-ocean. However, most ships will eventually need to install an on-board ballast water treatment system.

In addition to meeting the requirements of the Convention, ships entering U.S. waters will also need to meet the stringent standards laid down in the U.S. Ballast Water Regulations. These rules are enforced by the U.S. Coast Guard. The U.S. has not signed to the Ballast Water Convention, but adopted its own ballast-water regulations.

A major disconnect between international and U.S. requirements has left many wondering if their vessels will be able to operate in U.S. waters when the Convention comes into force. The uncertainty in this area has been compounded by the fact that only three equipment makers have systems that are approved, and considered fully compliant, with both the Convention and U.S. ballast water regulations.

So, as we always ask, how does this new regulation affect yachts? The answer is simple. Does the yacht have ballast tanks? Be careful how to answer that. The question is not, “Does the yacht carry ballast?” It is “Does the yacht have ballast tanks?”

We must also be careful to define ballast water and ballast tanks. Ballast water is defined as any water and suspended matter taken on board a vessel to control or maintain trim, draft, stability or stress of the vessel, regardless of how it is carried. Water sealed in ballast tanks, and water in permanently ballasted tanks changed only in connection with dry docking is not considered ballast water for the purpose of these rules. Water taken into ballast tanks from commercial or municipal fresh water sources is also not considered ballast water for the purpose of these rules.

Ballast tanks are any tank or hold on a vessel used for carrying ballast water, whether or not the tank or hold is designed for that purpose.

All vessels, both foreign and domestic, that are bound for ports or places in the U.S. and are equipped with ballast water tanks must submit ballast water management reports. This includes those ships that declare no ballast on board and ships not discharging ballast. The reports must be submitted for all voyages where a vessel enters a U.S. Captain of the Port (COTP) zone to anchor or moor, but not for voyages to ports or places solely within a single COTP zone.

For example, if a vessel transits from Miami to Fort Lauderdale, a ballast water management report does not have to be submitted if the voyage keeps the vessel inside the COTP Miami zone. However, if the same vessel transits outside of the COTP Miami zone and back in, or transits from Miami to Port Canaveral (COTP Jacksonville zone), a ballast water management report must be submitted.

Violations of this requirement can result in a civil penalty of $32,500.

And as a last note, there is an exemption for certain types of vessels. Unfortunately, pleasure yachts are not listed. This exemption includes any vessel owned by the U.S. Department of Defense and vessels operated by the USCG or other armed services. The old adage of “do as we say, not as we do,” still holds true.


Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau ( Comments are welcome at

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2 thoughts on “Rules of the Road: Know how to define ballast, tanks to meet new rules

  1. Mark Drewelow

    Hi Jake. Please can you re confirm applicability of BW regs to pleasure yachts. We check with uscg every year or two and your info conflicts with what uscg supplied to us last year. . Here is their response to our question.

    Q1 – We need help understand if the federal ballast water regs apply to luxury yachts holding pleasure registry.

    A1 – 46 USC 2101 defines recreational vessel as; 1) being manufactured or operated primarily for pleasure; or 2) leased, rented, or chartered to another for the latter’s pleasure. The USCG refers to the definition in 46 USC 2101 for recreational vessel regarding applicability of the ballast water regulations. If a foreign yacht is equipped with ballast tanks, the BW regs would not apply provided: the vessel’s registry is endorsed solely for pleasure; the owners use or the contract (lease, rental, or charter) indicates for pleasure use only. Guidance on the elements of a valid bareboat charter should be obtained through private legal counsel.

  2. Capt. Jake DesVergers

    Hello Mark,

    Thanks for your comment. You appear to be combining international regulations with USCG-specific national rules, plus some outdated info. The article is written based upon today’s requirements and the expected enforcement after the stated limit date. If you have any further questions, feel free to email me directly. I’ll be glad to help.

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