The drawn-out question of when the Ballast Water Management Convention will be enforced has obscured the equally crucial matter of how, as the managing director of a leading, onboard testing company makes clear
Cheslea technologies managing director, Brian Phillips, has no doubt of his company’s capabilities: “We know more about photosynthetic activity in algae, as a commercial company, than anyone else in the world”, he asserted.
This is no idle boast as the company is the leader in the scientific community when it comes to looking at the reproduction of algae populations in the ocean. Its equipment is in use by most of the worldwide scientific institutes involved with studying algae behaviour for the purposes of global warming analysis. This expertise made the company’s transition to ballast water testing a fairly natural one.
Dr Phillips said “While we were researching the ballast water market, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) issued a request for an input from companies who could offer a technical solution to the problem of carrying out ballast water compliance testing on board vessels, without the need to send water samples to a shore based laboratory. We responded with the design of a device heavily based on our 20 years’ experience with measuring photosynthetic activity of naturally occurring, marine algae populations. The final result of this process was development of our FastBallast testing equipment.” This filled a technology gap to allow a low cost, fast and, most importantly, accurate on-board compliance test.
To enable a suitable test to be developed, attention focused on the D2 standard, 10 to 50 micron range of marine organisms, ie algae. Chelsea Technologies did not adopt existing techniques such as PAM fluorometry where assumptions are made about the algal cell biology in order to arrive at a cell count. Instead, a direct method of cell number estimation is employed to produce a result whose accuracy rivals that of laboratory based, cell counts with a microscope. The FastBallast technique is now well established and has been extensively verified, both by inhouse testing and by independent, third party testing laboratories.
The existence of effective, accurate and meaningful, onboard ballast water testing is increasingly crucial, believes Dr Phillips. “The market wants more than someone to go on board a ship and offer an indication of whether the ballast water has passed a compliance test or not. In Saudi Arabia at the moment, FastBallast is being used extensively by our agents GSA to carry out compliance testing on vessels visiting Saudi Aramco ports; and what I have predicted is indeed happening. It’s not that I am particularly clever but it’s obvious that once ships are in danger of being fined, impounded or told to take their ballast water cargo elsewhere, the first question a captain or shipowner is going to ask is whether the instrument readings can be trusted: are they accurate?
The problem, as Dr Phillips pointed out, is that other systems rely to some extent on certain assumptions in order to arrive at an algal cell count. He explained “We are working with a very, very varied biology about which generalised assumptions cannot be made accurately. If you can prove that your a priori estimations are accurate and cover all possible algal populations, then your derived cell count will be accurate. However, we argue that there is no way you can say that and our results prove it. That is why we have gone to the trouble and expense of offering a measurement protocol that completely ignores any a priori assumption and instead measures cell count directly. We require no prior estimation of algal type, differential cell size or population mix – we just count them.”
Mr Phillips added that “to have reached this stage with no accredited means of testing is extraordinary. It astounds me as much as anyone.”
Chelsea Technologies is seeking to change that situation, Mr Phillips explained: “What we’ve been doing in recent times is a lot of work to prove that FastBallast does what it says on the tin. We feel that the industry won’t accept anyone’s test on board a vessel until such time as there are a set of third-party protocols that will allow class societies to accredit the box in question.”
This could happen more quickly than people think, as Chelsea Technologies has already initiated discussions with accreditation authorities. These will result in tests putting systems through a process of third-party protocol testing.
Mr Phillips stated that "it’s all working in our favour because the question’s now being asked as to why one system works better than others.”
Even with agreed-on testing standards, though, Mr Phillips believes it is inevitable that appeals against onboard tests carried out by port state authorities will be a theme over the next few years.
“Appeals are inevitable,” he asserted. “It’s going to lead to situations of tension between port authorities, testing facilities and shipowners because, a, the results are not what they want to hear, and b, the first point of call in any appeal will be to look at the method of testing being used – which I think is very good for us. The spotlight will be on what these onboard tests are actually giving you and how they’re arriving at those conclusions.”
Mr Philips believes that there will of necessity be a ‘period of grace’ during which the new regulations will not be stringently enforced. “I think that’s definitely what will have to happen. There is bound to be a period of time during which the meaningfulness and accuracy of these systems is assured before port state authorities can impound and fine vessels," he concluded.