Prosecutions for unlawful discharges of food waste from ships in
the Great Barrier Reef region are a perennial issue but there has
been a flurry of at least three convictions of shipowners and
masters in the last few months.
The cases tend to follow a standard pattern:
the ship is inside the Great Barrier Reef but far enough from
the nearest mainland that almost anywhere else in the world food
discharges would be permitted;
the ship's Garbage Management Plan and/or garbage discharge
signage does not correctly show the unique legal restrictions on
discharges inside the Great Barrier Reef;
a food discharge is made based on a belief that doing so is
lawful, and the discharge is accordingly written up in the Garbage
Australian Maritime Safety Authority officers check the Garbage
Record Book and discover the unlawful discharge, and press
Once the authorities detect the offence the vessel in question
will be detained and only released when financial security is given
equivalent to the maximum possible fine that could be handed down,
currently A$510,000 in total for the master and shipowner. Vessel
operators are urged to check their Garbage Management Plans and
garbage discharge signage as many of the "standard form"
documents are flawed: they highlight the restrictions on discharges
in "special areas" but do not mention the absolute
prohibition of all discharges within the Great Barrier Reef
Annex V of MARPOL controls ship-sourced garbage discharges, and
it generally imposes tighter restrictions on garbage discharge in
particularly sensitive zones by designating them as "special
areas". However, the Great Barrier Reef is not designated as a
"special area". Instead the restriction on garbage
discharge within the Reef is "hidden"; Annex V
artificially defines the outer edge of the
Reef as "the nearest land" such that all
discharges inside the Reef are effectively too near to "the
nearest land" to be permissible.
In recent times the court has imposed fines in the range of
A$4,000 to $6,000 on shipowners, and A$300 to $600 on masters for a
strict liability offence (but past fines have been as high as
A$7,500 and $1,200 respectively). While these penalties are not
– relatively speaking – overly large, those caught
experience considerable disruption and legal expense.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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This decision will be significant to aviation industry participants in assessing whether claimants in the context of international or domestic carriage by air have commenced claims in an appropriate forum in Australia.
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