The FAL convention — Electronic port call reporting takes off

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 15 January 2018


Through history ships or their agents have needed to complete various formalities and pay dues before the ship was allowed to discharge or load cargo and later to sail on to its destination.

With very few exceptions, each country and even each port had their own unique set of payments to make and documents to produce. This has remained true even until today although in 1967 when the IMO’s 1965 Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (FAL) Convention came into effect, there was some standardisation of basic forms.

As with so many aspects of shipping, the EU has tried to impose its own requirements at an international level. This year has seen MRV of CO2 emissions coming into effect and with slightly less fanfare it also sees the beginning of mandatory electronic reporting of ships. Although this is the result of the 2016 changes to the FAL Convention it owes much to the EU’s determination to digitise shipping.

The changes are, at least for the present, limited to details on cargo crew and passengers but although this by itself will not present huge problems, the benefits it will bring might be considered doubtful. Currently ships visiting most ports are obliged to complete a general declaration, a crew list plus a crew effects and a ships stores declaration and up to three further forms depending upon whether they have cargo, passengers or hazardous goods on board.

In practice, the general declaration and cargo declarations are generally completed by the ship’s agent but only the ship has full details about crew, crew effects and ships stores on board. Most port agents would consider preparation of the forms a very minor part of their job and not one demanding much in the way of time.

One window for all authorities

Depending upon the country and port involved, the documents will need to be presented to the appropriate authorities. In some cases there is already a single point where this is done but in others the cargo, crew and passenger lists may need to be presented to other bodies as well. In any event there may well be multiple authorities involved but these are usually informed by the port or customs authority and often by the port agent as well.

Under the new IMO FAL rules, there is now an obligation on public authorities to establish systems for the electronic exchange of information, within a period of three years. There will be a transitional period of 12 months from the date of the introduction of such systems to make electronic transmission mandatory, during which period both paper and electronic documents will be allowed.

Although aimed at expediting reporting, the new rules also introduce three additional declarations. These are security-related information as required under SOLAS, advance electronic cargo information for customs risk assessment purposes and advance notification form for waste delivery to port reception facilities.

Under the new rules, it is envisaged that reporting will be done under the ‘single window’ concept, whereby the information is submitted once and is then distributed by the receiving entity to all other bodies and officials that will need to access the information. In many countries, electronic reporting is already permitted and widely practiced. In the member countries of the EU under Directive 2010/65 this obligation came into effect in July 2015.

Within the EU, there is a degree of co-operation between member states making use of the member states’ SafeSeaNet (SSN) systems established as part of the European Maritime Safety Agency’s vessel traffic monitoring and information system. The SSN systems currently collect data on ships’ positions, security related matters and hazardous cargoes and are expected to be extended to cover other data at a later stage.

However, in less developed parts of the globe the reliance on paper documents is strong. In a flyer distributed by the IMO announcing the changes to the FAL Convention, it was intimated that there is a correlation between digitisation and economic activity suggesting that where electronic reporting is not practiced then trading will suffer.

Some think this too simplistic because developing countries generally have less imports and exports not because there are no facilities for electronic reporting of ships but because the inhabitants cannot afford expensive luxuries and because production methods are ineffective.

Ships documentation in an electronic age

In addition to the FAL documents needed for the reporting of ships, cargoes, crew and passengers, local authorities in ports will also want to have access to a wide range of other documents. These are not yet covered by the new rules but are expected to be included at some point.

Most of these documents will be those of most interest to PSC officers. All sips must have on board certificates that establish their seaworthiness, type of ship, competency of seafarers and compliance with various codes and conventions. In most ports a minimum number of these – the main SOLAS safety certificates and some issued under MARPOL – must also be presented to the main customs authority before a vessel is permitted to sail.

In practice this would be done by way of the port agent presenting the certificates to the customs with the arrival declaration and so long as sailing and anticipated arrival at the next port would be within the validity period of the certificates sailing would not be denied.

Over the last year or so, several classification societies and some flag states have announced that they are now in a position to issue e-certificates. These are electronic versions of the SOLAS certificates referred to above. In announcing these developments, the benefits of quicker customs clearances and a protection against fraud have been high on the list.

It is true that ships certificates are frequently ‘doctored’ by unscrupulous owners at the lower end of the scale and having a database against which validities can be checked could uncover some of these subterfuges but as for quicker customs clearance many would say that is doubtful. In any event, as long as any port state demands that documents be available for inspection at all times, there will remain a need for ships to carry a copy of all necessary certificates.

Access could be an issue

The FAL Committee at the IMO recommends that e-certificates should be treated in the same way as the paper certificates and is encouraging flag states to adopt e-certificates. It also believes that viewing an e-certificate on a computer should be considered as equivalent to inspecting the original certificate. Several flag states have agreed to issue e-certificates but until all Recognised Organisations and flags have the capability to do so and to make their database accessible to all parties that warrant it for whatever reason then there can be little progress.

The IMO’s GISIS database has an electronic certification module detailing which states issue e-certificates and which certificates they currently issue electronically. As of the 15 January 2018, only seven flags are listed as doing so. These are Bahamas, Denmark, Germany, Isle of Man, Liberia, Marshall Islands and Sierra Leone.

While other states may issue e-certificates they have not yet added their details to the database. The database does not itself have the certificates for individual ships as this will be the preserve of flag states. An additional issue will be the certificates of individual seafarers serving on ships. These will very likely not be issued by the flag state and for a ship with a mixed nationality crew, the authorities at a port of call may have to access several databases if they wish to carry out a full PSC inspection.

The system also makes no provision for what should happen in the event of a power or computer failure in either the port of call or in the location of the database itself.

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