• Seafarers at the core of shipping’s future Ratification of IMO regulations still an issue

BY Colin P. Young *

The international maritime regulatory framework has allowed international shipping to keep trade flowing within regions and between continents, despite the tremendous challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. For this, we thank the more than one million seafarers. Their dedication and professionalism have earned our admiration and gratitude.

Seafarers have been the unsung heroes of this pandemic. The world relies on them to transport more than 80% of global trade (volume), including necessities of food, medical supplies, fuels and raw materials, as well as manufactured goods. It is mainly for this reason that the World Maritime theme for 2021 is Seafarers: at the core of shipping’s future. Notwithstanding their importance to human welfare, they have become collateral victims of the crisis. Travel restrictions have left tens of thousands of them stranded on ships, or unable to join ships for work.

Makhosi Mbokazi Chief Officer Master mariner South Africa

Crew changes are vital, not just to prevent fatigue, but also to protect seafarers’ health, safety and wellbeing. This further ensures safe operations in maritime trade. Crew change cannot be postponed indefinitely.

There is still a huge task ahead to resolve this crew change crisis. We must ensure that seafarers are not stuck at sea longer than their contracted period. Designation of seafarers as key workers, as outlined in the United Nations General Assembly resolution adopted in December is essential. It is critical that seafarers are put at the heart of our conversations and actions in 2021.

International Maritime Organization (IMO) member states, The Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, and Jamaica have already designated seafarers as essential workers. Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Jamaica and Saint Kitts and Nevis have notified IMO of their national focal points on crew change and repatriation of seafarers in an attempt to coordinate action at national level.

IMO Meeting Schedule

The IMO has worked to ensure that this regulatory effort continues. There has been a high level of adaptability and flexibility to continue the important regulatory work of the organisation. We have adapted to working remotely and online, and we have rebuilt the IMO meetings programme. Webinars and online training sessions have been utilised, taking into consideration remote working challenges, as we continue to deliver our capacity-building work.

Meetings during 2021 have now been scheduled to be held virtually up to July 2021. This is a boon for the Caribbean. Many Caribbean states experience resource limitations, which stymie their ability to attend IMO meetings in person. The opportunity here is for Caribbean states to facilitate the participation of as many delegates as feasible, in their field of expertise, to not only to gain first-hand experience of the workings of the IMO, but also to make contributions to the matters under consideration by committees and/or sub-committees.


We also need to ensure that digitalisation is embraced. Standards under IMO’s Facilitation Convention, to make electronic data exchange mandatory, came into effect in April 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how vital this is.

A wider endorsement of the maritime single-window (MSW) concept is needed. The MSW will strengthen efficiencies, allowing submission of all information required by various Government entities through a single portal thus streamlining port operations.

Facilitating the establishment of “e-systems” to ensure electronic exchange of information is vital to the modernisation of shipping and the facilitation of maritime trade. It reduces administrative burdens for shipmasters and port administrations.

To facilitate a wide adoption of the MSW concept for small island developing states (SIDS) and the least-developed countries (LDCs), the IMO successfully established an MSW in Antigua and Barbuda. The scope of the project, completed in 2019, was to develop a generic national MSW system solution that could be adopted for the maritime transport domain for the electronic clearance of ships. It had to be designed to be modified for each stakeholders’ future requirements. The project, with funding from Norway, recognised that customs, port administrations (including maritime authorities, public health, police and immigration) operate in the port environment. The MSW would therefore have to facilitate effective coordination between all entities, an imperative for the smooth and efficient transit of people, ships and goods through the port.

The system software is, as far as possible, developed using software in which source code is released under the Open-Source MIT Licence. This essentially grants any user the rights to study, change and distribute the software to anyone, for any purpose. Also, with appropriate access and technical competency, the source code can be modified and enhanced at installation or in the future, as the need arises.

The IMO intends to replicate the generic MSW system, which has been custom designed for small island developing states and LDCs without an MSW. This will assist member states in complying with their obligations under the Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (a.k.a. FAL Convention), particularly those with relatively small ports.

With the additional functionalities of creating linkages with ASYCUDA (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Automated System for Customs Data) and the Advance Passenger Information System to share common data, and the pending implementation of the Advance Cargo Information System being spearheaded by the Joint Regional Communications Centre, it is anticipated that an enhanced generic MSW would be extremely beneficial for the Caribbean region. It facilitates a significant reduction in the number of persons required to board a ship upon arrival in port.

Integrated Technical Cooperation Programme

Life in the Caribbean is highly dependent on the maritime sector for basics, while tourism is the principal economic activity. In providing support for 14 states and 17 overseas territories or parts within the Caribbean Basin or bordering the Atlantic Ocean, the IMO office in the Caribbean will continue to play a major role under IMO’s Integrated Technical Cooperation Programme (ITCP), to support states in the implementation of the international IMO treaty instruments to which they are party.

Caribbean states have extensive and growing interests in merchant shipping. Ship registries operate in all but one of the independent states. The Bahamas leads the region in gross tonnage. Globally, 5.2% and 5.6% of ships and tonnage, respectively, fly flags of Caribbean registries.

There has been steady growth in cruise business at selected destinations throughout the region. With the growth of the region’s merchant fleet and its tourism and cruise industries, the emphasis on IMO assistance focused on effective maritime safety administration and marine environment protection – and maritime security – taking into consideration that established, formal maritime administrations in the region are limited in number.

As much of the indigenous shipping in the region is supplied by vessels to which IMO instruments do not fully apply, these ships need special attention for their safety and the protection of the marine environment. Consequently, with the support of the IMO, the region developed the Caribbean Cargo Ship Safety Code (CCSS Code) and the Code of Safety for Small Commercial Vessels (SCV Code), as well as model courses for seafarers to obtain certification to function on such vessels.

IMO’s Integrated Technical Cooperation Programme was established to ensure safer and more secure shipping; enhanced environmental protection; and, facilitation of international maritime traffic. This ITCP can make a significant contribution to a country’s socioeconomic growth. Technical assistance can help ensure that IMO instruments are fully implemented.

Status of Implementation

What does implementation – meaning inclusion of instruments into national legislation – look like in the Caribbean for the 14 IMO member states?

The two major areas that are highlighted relate to instruments for protection of the marine environment and the relevant instruments for the inspection of foreign ships by state inspectors of the Caribbean Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control (CMoU).

The CMoU harmonises port state inspections in the region so as to facilitate eradication of sub-standard ships and thus ensure the reduction of casualties and incidents. This translates to fewer lives lost at sea and better protection of the marine environment. Given the heavy reliance on tourism, domestic legislation to safeguard the marine environment is considered critical for protection of this valuable resource.

However, as shown in Chart 1, the status of ratification and implementation into national legislation of the main IMO treaties (relating to prevention of pollution, response and preparedness and liability and compensation) is uneven, and there is a significant gap between becoming a party to the relevant treaty (ratification) and achieving full implementation.


Port states have the power to detain a ship if it is determined to be unsafe for continuing its journey. However, to so do, the inspectors need legislative authority to enforce the actions prescribed in the instruments which the countries have signed.

In the case of the IMO Instruments and the Caribbean regional codes (CCSS and SCV) adopted by CMoU as relevant instruments under which ships visiting a port are to be inspected, the average ratification is at 80%. However, implementation stands at 40%. [See Chart 2.]


Moving towards implementation

At a high-level symposium held in Jamaica in 2019, government ministers responsible for maritime transport committed to continuing to enhance the full and effective implementation of the IMO’s and International Labour Organization’s instruments. These instruments address maritime safety and security, marine environment protection, facilitation of maritime traffic; and the human element and living and working conditions on board ships. They committed to the full implementation of the response, liability and compensation regimes as well as the MARPOL Convention, including the provision of adequate waste reception facilities, among other things.

Subsequently, the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), at their meeting in Saint Kitts and Nevis in 2019, agreed that the Directors of Maritime Affairs of each member state should meet regularly with the intention of coordinating and presenting a holistic approach to addressing the maritime safety and security issues of the Community. The IMO office in the Caribbean continues to work with the CARICOM Secretariat towards formalising meetings.

Post pandemic

The IMO Secretariat has developed a project proposal to source development funding for a long-term Sustainable Maritime Transport (SMART) Programme for the SIDS. Dubbed Carib-SMART Programme, its long-term objective is to develop and implement a SMART system that will enable SIDS of the Caribbean to recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the maritime sector.

A series of national and regional consultations will identify the needs and gaps for SIDS in the region. This would be followed by the design of a long-term technical assistance programme to develop and implement a regional-level sustainable maritime transport system. The first component of the programme will be a detailed design of a regional project aimed at legal, policy and institutional reform (LPIR) to address the significant and common challenges in the implementation of IMO instruments.

During the 70th session of the IMO’s Technical Cooperation Committee, held virtually in December 2020, Norway informed the Committee that it had recently contributed approximately USD110,000 to the long-term technical assistance programme for SIDS of the Caribbean region (Carib-SMART Programme). Meetings of Ministers responsible for maritime transport and senior maritime administrators are tentatively scheduled to be held in June/July 2021 to progress the two above-mentioned initiatives.[]

  • First published April 2, 2021

* Colin P. Young is IMO’s Regional Maritime Adviser for the Caribbean, facilitating human resource and institutional capacity building through technical assistance to IMO Member States and Overseas Territories in the region. The views expressed in this article for Portside Caribbean are his own.