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As SOLAS Looms, Maritime Commission Warns Ocean Carriers About Noncompliance

The new shipping rule for container weighing that has sent ocean carriers into a tizzy is right around the corner, and noncompliance won’t be an option.

In just 14 days, on July 1, an amendment to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulation will require exporters to verify container weights before loading if they want their goods to go anywhere. The aim is to make vessels safer, avoiding container stacks tipping over or ships breaking apart.

Shippers have two choices for determining a container’s Verified Gross Mass (VGM): weigh the packed container or weigh the container’s contents and add that to the mass of the container itself.

The issue with the change—as is typically the case—is who’s going to foot the bill.

No one seems to be entirely clear on how the container weights will be verified and how the information will be shared, which is why there hasn’t been consensus on who pays for the process.

Some carriers rallied to work out an agreement with six major ports out of fear that the new rule would cause bottlenecks and shipping delays. The Ocean Carrier Equipment Management Association filed an agreement with the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) last month to start a conversation about creating a standard for ports and terminals to provide the weighing services for exporters.

In a statement Wednesday, FMC chairman Mario Cordero shut that whole line of thinking down.

The simple solution, he said, is for shippers to use the weights already taken at terminal gates to classify the container’s gross mass. And he warned, any solution that unnecessarily complicates the weighing process will “invite increased scrutiny” by the Commission.

“There is a course to SOLAS VGM compliance provided by the Coast Guard that is not only not burdensome, it requires no additional action at all. Why anyone would add procedures, requirements and costs to doing business is not only puzzling, it raises the specter of anticompetitive behavior and necessitating Commission action,” Cordero said. “Using the weight taken at the terminal gate for the purposes of satisfying the need for a verified weight of a container is a simple and efficient solution for assuring the continued smooth flow of export cargoes.”

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Beyond carriers accepting the weights determined at terminal gates to comply with SOLAS, Cordero said shipping lines should streamline transition of the information.

“In the interest of furthering efficiencies, weights determined at terminal gates for the purposes of SOLAS VGM compliance should be transmitted directly from the terminal operator to the shipping line, not provided to the shipper to then present to the carrier,” Cordero said. “The quickest route between two points is a straight line and that applies to data flow as much as it does to navigation. It only makes sense to have a direct reporting of container weights from the terminal operator to the ocean carrier.”

The other concern with SOLAS is that the parties that will be subject to the changes, retailers included, still don’t know exactly what they’ll be required to do.

Cordero, however, doesn’t understand why the level of uncertainty since the U.S. Coast Guard’s bulletin issued on April 28 said clearly that existing U.S. laws for providing verified container weights are equal to the SOLAS regulation.

“The Coast Guard has made it clear that the existing methods and procedures for tendering export cargo and declaring container weights are already in compliance with what was mandated via the International Maritime Organization’s amendment to SOLAS,” Cordero explained. “While I certainly applaud efforts to make the maritime transportation of cargo safer, I am increasingly struggling to fathom why the ocean carrier community has not fully embraced the equivalency declaration as a way to demonstrate flexibility and sensitivity to our U.S.-export shippers.”