On November 10 2010 the Nasco Diamond, a bulk cargo vessel with 55,000 deadweight tonnage, was lost off southern Japan carrying nickel ore from Indonesia to China. Of the 25 crew on board, only four were rescued. The cause of the loss is not presently known; however, nickel ore mined in Indonesia is renowned for its high moisture content, leading to an inherent risk of cargo liquefying during the voyage. The resulting stability problems can cause a vessel to capsize.

On January 1 2011 the International Maritime Solid Bulk Cargo (IMSBC) Code became mandatory. The aim of the code is to promote the safe carriage of solid bulk cargoes. All vessels carrying solid bulk cargoes in general, and dangerous solid bulk cargoes in particular, are now required to comply with the new IMSBC Code irrespective of their size or year of build.

The IMSBC Code replaces the Code of Safe Practice for Solid Bulk Cargoes, which was first introduced in 1965. In December 2008 the International Maritime Organisation adopted Resolution MSC268 (85), which introduced the IMSBC Code for the carriage of solid bulk cargoes. Owners have been asked to apply the IMSBC Code on a voluntary basis since January 1 2009, but it became mandatory when amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) entered into force in January 2011. A failure by owners to comply with the IMSBC Code now constitutes a breach of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.

The IMSBC Code must be kept on board every bulk carrier. Its requirements, which are intended to assist in the prevention of accidents and incidents, need to be understood and followed by owners and all those on board. The port state controls and port authorities of major ports are likely to require proof of compliance, and may check that the vessel's document of compliance for the carriage of solid bulk cargoes has been amended to refer to the IMSBC Code.

The IMSBC Code provides information on the characteristics of the cargoes and instructions on the procedures to be followed when solid bulk cargoes are due to be carried. Each solid bulk cargo in the code has been assigned a bulk cargo shipping name and all transport documentation for the cargo must use this name. Cargoes listed in the IMSBC Code are grouped into three categories:

  • cargoes which may liquefy if shipped at a moisture content in excess of their transportable moisture limit, such as iron ore fines or nickel ore;
  • cargoes which possess a chemical hazard that could give rise to a dangerous situation on a ship, such as direct reduced iron or coal; and
  • cargoes which are liable neither to liquefy nor to cause a dangerous situation on board a ship.

The key changes introduced by the IMSBC Code are:

  • the addition of new cargoes, including direct reduced iron and linted cotton seed, which are governed by the code;
  • operational guidance on the carriage of coal and brown coal which states that such coal is not to be stowed adjacent to fuel tanks heated to above 55°C;
  • guidance on safe carriage of cargoes not covered by the IMSBC Code; and
  • modifications to existing cargo schedules.

Since January 1 2011 shippers of bulk cargo not listed in the IMSBC Code have been required to provide the competent authority at the load port with a description of the cargo's characteristics for the purposes of an assessment as to whether the cargo is suitable for safe shipment. The competent authority must then take a decision on whether the cargo is safe to load.

The IMSBC Code will be revised every two years - the same time period as applies for revisions to the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code. It has been agreed that revisions to the IMSBC Code will come into force in every odd year and those to the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code every even years.

For many ship owners, the IMSBC Code is already something with which they are familiar. Therefore, the mandatory introduction of the code is unlikely to necessitate any major changes to on-board procedures for the shipment and carriage of solid bulk cargoes. However, owners will need to be aware that the mandatory nature of the IMSBC Code imposes a positive obligation on owners to ensure compliance. Additionally, the fact that the IMSBC Code is now mandatory may also give owners greater resources to call upon when they are instructed by shippers and charterers to load and carry solid bulk cargoes that require special knowledge or care or that may be inherently dangerous.

For further information on this topic please contact Gaute Gjelsten or Morten Lund Mathisen at Wikborg Rein's Oslo office by telephone (+47 22 82 75 00), fax (+47 22 82 75 01) or email ([email protected] or [email protected]). Alternatively, contact Duncan McGregor at Wikborg Rein's London office by telephone (+44 20 7367 0300), fax (+44 20 7367 0301) or email ([email protected]).