SOLAS slowly and unevenly takes shape worldwide

There are now less than 100 days before a new international container weight rule goes into effect and the rollout is taking shape in very different ways in each of the 162 participating nations, with some governments giving clear guidelines while others haven’t provided any direction at all to date.

Effective July 1, container lines will be obligated to reject any box that doesn’t have a verified gross mass, or VGM, according to an International Maritime Organization amendment to the Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS, treaty.

Among those nations with guidelines, the language varies, not only with attention to detail, but in the severity of penalties and fines shippers and carriers could face if they are found in noncompliance. That wide variation is lending credence to industry concerns that the rule remains mired in confusion so close to an international deadline.

Only 10 countries to date have had their guidelines and regulations published to the website of the World Shipping Council, a group that represents roughly 90 percent of global container capacity and was a major player in the creation of the new rule. Those 10 are just a fraction of the 162 signatories to the SOLAS treaty.

Moreover, the published documents are at different levels of finalization. Whereas Canada has produced draft procedures; Argentina has full-on regulations; Australia, a discussion paper; Denmark, a preliminary order.

No signatory, yet, has challenged the methodology for obtaining a container’s VGM. The SOLAS mandate is clear that it requires shippers to give carriers the VGM of onboarding containers gained either by weighing the container after it is loaded and sealed, known as Method 1, or weighing each individual package and cargo item and adding the tare weight of the container to the sum of the single masses, Method 2.

The U.S. Coast Guard has staked out a very hands-off approach, saying it most likely would only occasionally check for VGM on inbound containers, and it will hold cargo without a VGM until the country of the ship’s flag nation clears the cargo. It is not even clear, at this point, if the Coast Guard would levy a punishment against the carrier for loading a container without a VGM, a violation of the container weight mandate.

Other maritime administrations, though, have been operating under the understanding that the shipper is ultimately responsible for misdeclared weights, creating penalties for shippers in violation of the rule. Canada and Japan, for example, have already said that shippers could face various fines if they misdeclare the weight of their containers.

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