A dispute over ballast water practices could be cover for an economic show of force to block U.S.-flagged vessels from Canadian ports on the Great Lakes, according to the Lake Carriers’ Association, which has asked the Federal Maritime Commission to investigate new regulations proposed by Ottawa.
James Weakley, president of the Ohio-based LCA, said the proposal would force U.S. ships operating in U.S. waters to comply with Canadian ballast water regulations.
“We believe the U.S. should regulate ballast water discharges in the U.S., and it’s basically an economic power grab by the Canadian industry or by the Canadian government on behalf of the Canadian industry,” he said.
The U.S. “laker” fleet — vessels that operate exclusively on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River — doesn’t leave the confines of the Lakes and is not subject to International Maritime Organization (IMO) ballast water regulations. The United States is not a signatory to the IMO’s ballast water convention. About half of Canada’s Great Lakes fleet operates in the ocean as well, however, traveling as far as the Arctic Circle and the Caribbean.
Under Canada’s new proposal, those vessels would be required to comply with IMO ballast water rules. Ottawa also would require U.S.-flagged lakers that take on ballast water in Canada to be fitted with treatment systems, even if the water is not discharged there. Lakers must load ballast water while they offload cargo for the safety of the vessels and crews.
A key difference in the viewpoints of the two countries is that the U.S. regulations are based on the route of a vessel, while the Canadian government draws its lines based on vessel registry.
“In other words, the U.S. government treats all lakers the same, and the Canadian government wants all Canadian-flagged vessels to be treated as lakers even if they go to the Arctic, East Coast and Caribbean,” Weakley said.
Canada is within its rights to regulate the U.S. fleet out of handling Canadian exports, he said, but it shouldn’t have the right to regulate U.S.-flagged ships hauling American cargo between American ports, or discharging ballast water in the U.S. that was loaded in Canada. At stake is about $1 billion a year in economic activity for U.S.-flagged operators.
“Thank God for the Federal Maritime Commission,” Weakley said. “Because without the FMC’s ability to investigate and perhaps impose fees to level the playing field, we have nothing to protect the U.S. fleet.”
In 2012, the U.S. Coast Guard agreed to a request by Transport Canada and the Canadian shipping industry to move the “laker line” that defined the boundary of Great Lakes trade north to Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Any vessel that did not pass Anticosti Island was considered a laker and was not required to install a ballast water management system.
Canadian shippers subsequently decided the new boundary was unfair to Canadian vessels that sailed past Anticosti Island to serve the Arctic, the east coast of Canada and the United States. The Canadian government threatened retaliation if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard didn’t confer laker status on all Canada-flagged domestic vessels, even if they ventured into the ocean.
“They are retaliating against U.S.-flagged lakers in a very creative way, by regulating the discharges in the U.S. of ballast water loaded in Canada,” Weakley said.
In March, the LCA filed a petition with the Federal Maritime Commission to investigate the issue, and the agency accepted. The LCA asserts that Ottawa’s proposal would create an “unfavorable” condition for U.S.-flagged vessels engaged in foreign trade, and that regulating ballast water loaded in Canada and discharged in the U.S. has no environmental benefit for Canada, only economic gain.
“Canadian-flagged vessels, both lakers and oceangoing vessels, already control 90 percent of the binational Great Lakes trade,” Weakley said. “Canada’s proposed regulations give them a monopoly.”
On its website, the Ottawa-based Chamber of Marine Commerce says the United States requires ballast water management systems on Canadian lakers that make “occasional voyages” to Canadian east coast ports, creating “an unlevel playing field” since U.S. lakers are exempt from this provision.
“The Canadian and U.S. governments are now on separate regulatory tracks going forward, which could significantly harm both countries’ domestic vessel fleets,” the chamber says.
Neither fleet has found ballast water management systems in the market that can meet the unique requirements of the Great Lakes environment and are operationally or economically feasible, according to the chamber.