On Aug. 14, the U.S. Coast Guard held a public meeting in Seattle to update the commercial marine industry on the development of a mandatory international code for ships operating in polar waters, both Arctic and Antarctic, and to take comments. 

The so-called Polar Code will actually be amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). For the time being, the Coast Guard is not considering these new rules for domestic U.S. shipping. “The Polar Code adds to SOLAS for polar waters,” said Lt. Andrew Gibbons of the Coast Guard Office of Design and Engineering Standards. “It doesn’t apply to vessels below the SOLAS threshold.” (It will apply to SOLAS-certified cargo ships over 500 GT and vessels with 12 or more passengers.)

But that doesn’t mean new rules for domestic operations aren’t coming. “We just haven’t started the domestic regs process,” said Capt. John Mauger, chief of the Coast Guard Office of Design and Engineering Standards.

The Polar Code is being developed in two parts, one dealing with safety issues including vessel construction, trip risk assessment and personnel training and certification. The second part focuses on environmental risks including oil spills and other potential environmental hazards and will affect a broader range of vessels, including fishing boats as well as tugs and barges. One environmental topic currently being debated is the use of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic. A MARPOL regulation adopted in 2011 bans the carriage or use of HFO in Antarctic waters.  

Polar Code safety regulations are scheduled to be adopted at IMO meetings in London in late November. The environmental regs are about six months behind, but both are expected to be in force by 2017.

Many questions and comments at the meeting concerned qualifications for mariners operating vessels in polar waters. Will engineers be qualified and certified for work in Arctic conditions? Will certified “ice navigators” be allowed as a substitute for ice-qualified masters?

The draft Polar Code also lists three categories of vessels covered by the Polar Code, with Category A being the most capable of navigation in polar conditions and Category C being the least. How vessels get categorized and the limitations imposed on them accordingly were also topics of discussion at the meeting. 

Following the meeting, the public and the maritime industry were able to submit comments on the formulation of the Polar Code. Comments submitted by the American Waterways Operators focused on two specific areas:

“1. The Polar Code must clearly define the term ‘domestic voyages,’ and should not impose international requirements on vessels that transit between two domestic ports; and,

2. The Polar Code must provide a sensible framework for the training and certification of officers navigating in icy waters and allow for the use of certified ice navigators to accommodate the limited capacity of masters to obtain polar STCW endorsements.”