Thursday’s deadline for compliance with tough new maritime security laws saw a rush of last-minute paperwork by ports and ships complying with the new code. But as the U.S. Coast Guard began boarding cargo ships entering American ports, many ships and ports have still failed to adopt the new anti-terrorism measures, risking costly shipping delays — or outright denial of access to the U.S. by foreign ships.
Of the 265 ships arriving Thursday, six foreign-flagged ships were denied entry into U.S. waters, including the Bolivian-flagged cargo ship Dahomey Express which was turned back from the port of Miami because it lacked the new security certificates. No additional details were available, but Adm. Thomas Collins, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, told Reuters that none of the ships that were turned away were oil tankers, but rather tended to be “freight-type vessels.”
Rupert Herbert-Burns, a senior consultant with the Maritime Intelligence Group which advises ports on security threats, said the code was a good step, but no panacea to eliminate security threats.
“There are still thousands of port facilities around the world, particularly in the less developed world, which won’t be in compliance for some time. That is obviously of concern,” he said. “It’s not going to be watertight until you’ve got much, much more endemic coverage.”
Nigeria, for example, said on Thursday that just three of its 53 port terminals were ready. But it showed little immediate concern over flunking the deadline and said the compliance problems would not affect its precious oil exports.
The comprehensive new rules cover everything from physical security for ports — including upgrades like fencing and closed circuit TV cameras — to tighter procedures and better documentation. Vessels must notify port authorities 96 hours before their arrival, identify themselves with a unique registration number visible from air, and provide detailed descriptions of their cargo. They’re also required to list their last 10 ports of call; if any one of those ports is not up to speed with the new rules, that ship can be turned away.
But despite nearly two years of preparation, many ships and ports have still not met the new standards. As of the July 1 deadline, some 15 percent of 22,500 ships and 30 percent of the 8,000 port facilities covered by the new rules have failed to comply, according to figures released Thursday by the International Maritime Organization, the U.N. agency charged with overseeing the global security initiative.
That’s up sharply from last week, when something like 80 percent of ports and two-thirds of ships had failed to file their paperwork. Given the last-minute rush by ships and ports to meet the deadline, it may take a few days or weeks to sort out just how many pose a major security threat.
“It will only be some time after (July 1) that we will be able to establish clearly what the actual situation is and then, if necessary, start taking appropriate action,” said IMO Secretary-General Efthimios Mitropoulos Thursday.
The IMO has also said it will take steps to beef up security along key shipping lanes around the world, especially in areas where piracy in on the rise and attacks on ships have become more frequent.
Port authorities enforcing the new rules have to strike a delicate balance between strictly following the new rules to thwart terrorist attacks and slowing the pace of global trade. Some 80 percent of global cargo by weight is moved by maritime shippers.
The U.S. Coast Guard, which is taking a hard line, has pledged to board every vessel entering U.S. ports to check for compliance. The Coast Guard says that less than one percent of U.S. ships and ports face a shutdown for not meeting the Thursday deadline. But many overseas ports are not yet up to speed.
So, in addition to monitoring U.S. ports, the Coast Guard has set up a team of inspectors to visit foreign port and verify compliance. Recent visits to Singapore and Honduras have found “generally positive results,” according to a spokeswoman.
Elsewhere around the world, some local port authorities apparently are willing to give ships additional time to get up to speed with the new rules.
In Asia, where most major shipping lines and key container ports had met the U.N.’s July 1 deadline, there were no initial reports of delays. At the world’s largest transshipment hub in Singapore, all 41 ships that visited the port by Thursday were compliant.
Traffic at Taiwan’s two main international ports of Kaohsiung -- the world’s sixth-largest container terminal --and Keelung moved swiftly throughout the day, with no vessels requiring searches, harbor officials said.
Australia, where all ships and ports involved in international trade met the deadline, was keeping a wary eye on suspect vessels but did not delay any.
In Europe, where most mega-ports were in full compliance, there were also no reports of early snags.
A spokesman in Rotterdam, Europe’s biggest port, said he did not foresee any disruption to trade or major incidents involving non-compliant ships.
Germany’s Transport Ministry said uncertified vessels were still being allowed to dock, although ships from a high-risk region that had made no attempt to comply might be stopped.
The Paris MOU, which oversees maritime safety and security in 13 EU countries, as well as Russia and Canada, reported it was business as usual.
Though the new security regulations are the most sweeping since Word War II, security analysts say they are far from foolproof. Much of the concern centers around the inspection of the contents of the roughly 200 million, 40-foot steel containers that have become the standard mode of storing cargo aboard ship and then transferred to rail or truck for overland shipment.
The new regulations require more detailed description of the contents of those containers, but they don’t address the apparently insurmountable task of physical inspections. Security experts say it takes roughly 15 man-hours to search one container; many large cargo ships carry as many as 4,000 of them. As a result, only an estimated 2 percent of containers are physically searched. And many empty containers are never searched.
The risk of those containers being used for terror attacks was highlighted in April, when two suicide bombers hid in a cargo container and blew it up in the Israeli ports of Ashdod, killing 10 people. Local police said they believed the ultimate target was a series of chemical storage tanks at the port.