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 Record Book;
  • Australian Maritime Safety Authority officers check the Garbage Record Book and discover the unlawful discharge, and press charges.

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 area.

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.

This information is intended to provide a general summary only and should not be relied on as a substitute for legal advice.

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