Managing ballast water

Ballast water allows vessels to operate safely. The water adds weight so the vessel floats at the right depth and stays level and stable. Ballast water can be taken on board or released when a vessel needs to be stabilized, like when cargo is unloaded or loaded at ports or there is bad weather.

Ballast water can also accidentally introduce and spread aquatic invasive species and pathogens into Canadian waters.

On June 23, 2021, the Ballast Water Regulations came into force in Canada. These regulations under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 are one way that Canada is protecting our environment and economy from aquatic invasive species.

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Why does ballast water need to be regulated?

Regulating ballast water reduces the risk that vessels might accidentally introduce and spread aquatic invasive species (species that live in the water and become harmful when outside of their natural habitat) and pathogens (bacteria and viruses that cause disease) to an environment outside of their natural range. Without natural predators in their new environment, these species can quickly grow in number. This can have serious economic and environmental impacts.

How Canada manages the threat of invasive species

Canada played a major role in developing the International Maritime Organization’s International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments, 2004, which has been in effect since 2017. The convention is a global and co-operative approach to managing ballast water that requires vessels from all countries to follow the same rules and safety precautions as they carry the world’s trade. It improves protection for ecosystems and biodiversity both in Canada and globally.

The Great Lakes

The convention applies to all of Canada’s marine environments including the Great Lakes, which are shared by Canada and the United States. Aquatic invasive species continue to spread in the Great Lakes, where they have a large, negative impact. It is hard to treat ballast water in the Great Lakes because the lakes are cold, fresh and mixed with sediment.

Although the United States hasn’t joined the convention, our two countries work together to make sure our regulations are compatible under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. This supports our shared conservation and economic goals and the safe operation of Canadian, American and international vessels that operate in these waters.

Canada’s Ballast Water Regulations

Before being updated in 2021, Canada’s regulations focused on preventing the introduction of aquatic invasive species after an international voyage. The Ballast Water Regulations now go a step further by also addressing the spread of species within Canada, as well as the transfer of species from Canada to other countries. This will help us protect global biodiversity.

The regulations include a change from the old way of managing ballast water (exchanging ballast water in mid-ocean, which strands organisms in a hostile environment) to modern ballast water management systems (that treat ballast water to minimize the number of organisms). Vessels arriving in Canada’s fresh waters from another country (other than vessels arriving from U.S. Great Lakes waters) need to continue to exchange ballast water and use the new management systems to protect these vulnerable areas.

The regulations require all Canadian vessels and all other vessels entering Canadian waters to:

  • develop and put in place an approved ballast water management plan;
  • follow standards that limit the number of organisms released;
  • be regularly surveyed and inspected by an authorized organization;
  • keep records; and,
  • carry a valid certificate that allows inspectors to confirm that the vessel complies with the convention.

By following an approved plan, vessels will limit the number of organisms in their ballast water, and the risk of introducing and spreading aquatic invasive species.

For example, many large commercial vessels will use an approved ballast water management system. Some vessels may use Canadian or U.S. potable (drinkable) water as an alternative way to meet this requirement and limit the risk of carrying and releasing harmful species. Some smaller vessels (including those less than 50 m long that remain in Canada) can follow equivalent rules better suited to their operations and size.

These measures will make it less likely that invasive species will travel in ballast water and invade coastal and freshwater ports worldwide.

Why introduce the regulations?

The regulations better align Canada’s requirements with the rules set out in the convention. They also address the spread of invasive species in the ballast water of vessels that operate within Canada or on short-distance regional voyages.

As a result of the regulations, around 34 species won’t be introduced and spread in Canada by 2044, including five species that cause serious damage. In the case of Canadian Great Lakes ports, the spread of invasive species should drop by 82% by 2030. By preventing the introduction and spread of invasive species, the regulations will provide $980 million of economic benefit by 2044.

Who do the regulations affect?

The regulations benefit all Canadians and affect anyone responsible for a vessel designed to carry ballast water, including Canadian vessels and foreign vessels that enter Canadian waters. American vessels that transit between U.S. ports in the Great Lakes won’t be regulated by Canada unless they do business in Canada that involves taking on or releasing ballast water.

Information for vessel owners and operators

If you’re responsible for a vessel, you need to read, understand and follow the regulations. For many vessels, this includes complying with the convention and installing an approved ballast water management system. Some smaller vessels can follow the convention guidelines for equivalent compliance.

The regulations also include specific measures to clarify how the convention is understood and applied in Canada. There are also specific Canadian rules that anyone responsible for a vessel needs to read, understand, and follow, such as:

  • Canadian vessels that don’t voyage internationally, other than to U.S. Great Lakes ports, need to meet Convention standards at launch, in 2024 or in 2030 depending on when they were built
  • even though ballast water from the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River is hard to treat, using a ballast water management system in these waters significantly reduces environmental risks. As needed, ballast water taken on board in these areas is considered to meet standards when a suitable system is installed on time, and properly used and maintained
  • vessels on international voyages that use a ballast water management system must continue exchanging ballast water and saltwater flushing before operating in Canadian fresh waters. Locations and fresh waters are identified in TP 13617 – List of Canada’s designated alternate ballast water exchange areas and fresh waters and supplement the International Maritime Organization’s Guidelines on Ballast Water Exchange
  • vessels are still required to submit a ballast water reporting form

The Ballast Water Regulations include other details and requirements that aren’t included in this overview. Anyone responsible for a vessel needs to refer directly to the regulations and follow their detailed requirements. The International Maritime Organization publishes additional convention guidelines that are referred to in the regulations.

Making sure that ballast water poses the lowest possible risk to our local and global environment and economy is just one way that the Government of Canada is protecting our waters.

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