The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) approved the Guidelines regarding the Verified Gross Mass of a Container Carrying Cargo (MSC.1/Circ.1475) in May 2014 (The “Guidelines”).
The South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) gave effect to these Guidelines when it issued a Marine Notice (No 11 of 2015 dated 26 June 2015) titled “Verification of the Gross Mass of a Packed Container” on 26 June 2015. These Guidelines are an amendment to SOLAS (The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, Chapter vi, Part A, regulation 2), which requires a packed container’s gross mass to be verified prior to storage aboard a ship.
These Guidelines are applicable to containers that are to be exported on sea-going vessels.
The main principles of the Guidelines are that the shipper is responsible for providing the verified gross mass (“VGM”) of the packed container and that the carrier must receive the VGM of the packed container prior to loading on the vessel. The Guidelines define the “shipper” to mean “a legal entity or person named on the bill of lading or sea way bill or equivalent multimodal transport document (e.g. “through” bill of lading) as shipper and/or who (or in whose name or on whose behalf) a contract of carriage has been concluded with a shipping company”. This is a broad definition and could well include freight forwarders, container operators, consolidators and the like, and not just the party with an interest (risk or ownership) in the containerised goods. A container has the same meaning as the term in the International Convention for Safe Containers, 1972.
The obligation on the shipper to provide the VGM is not new. In terms of the Merchant Shipping (Carriage of Cargoes) Regulations, 2004 a shipper has to provide the carrier with cargo information which must include, the gross mass of the cargo or cargo unit (container) (Reg.5 (1)(b)(i). The shipper must ensure that the gross mass in the shipping document is in accordance with the gross mass of the cargo (Reg. 5(3). The Guidelines define a shipping document to mean a document used by the shipper to communicate the VGM of the packed container. This document can be part of the shipping instructions to the carrier or a separate communication (for example a declaration including a weight certificate produced by a weigh station).
What is new is that the Guidelines prescribe methods by which the shipper can verify the gross mass of a packed container.
The first method to obtain the VGM is for the shipper to weigh, or to arrange that a third party weigh, the packed container upon the closing and sealing of the container. This will require a weighbridge.
The second method is for the shipper (or a third party by arrangement of the shipper) to weigh all packages and cargo items, including the mass of pallets, dunnage and packing and securing material to be packed in the container and, thereafter add the entire mass of the container to the sum, using a certified method.
If the shipper is dealing with “individual, original sealed packages that have an accurate mass of the packages and cargo items clearly and permanently marked on their surfaces”, then the shipper will not need to re-weigh these packages when they are packed into the container. However, it is not clear whether this exception is only applicable to cargoes and packages that have already been weighed using a certified method.
If the shipper is dealing with consolidated cargo where the container is packed by multiple parties or contains cargo from multiple parties, the shipper must still obtain and document the verified gross mass of the packed container.
In South Africa, SAMSA is the authority responsible for certifying and approving the method used for weighing the container contents. As in many countries, all weighing scales have to be certified and calibrated in terms of legislation. SAMSA is in the process of appointing third parties who will facilitate this certification.
If this process is not finalised by the time the Guidelines come into force, it cover may likely that carriers will still refuse to receive containers that do not have a VGM because their insurances will lapse if a carrier loads containers in contravention of SOLAS.
Non-compliance with Guidelines
Once the shipper has verified the gross mass of the packed container it must communicate this information in a shipping document signed by a duly authorised representative of the shipper.
A container that does not comply with the Guidelines cannot be loaded on board a vessel. This is mandatory.
Many shippers have criticised the IMO, which is primarily a maritime organisation focused on sea transport, for a lack of guidance in the implementation of the Guidelines and understanding of the manufacturing and supply chain process.