Worldwide there are approximately 3,000 merchant ports and the work of the Harbour Master can vary widely from country to country and from port to port even within the same country.
A well-maintained port is usually an indicator of a well-managed port. The Harbour Master will work with the port's engineers and maintenance department to ensure that infrastructure and assets essential for marine operations are maintained and fit for purpose. Major infrastructure and smaller assets should be recorded in an asset register, inspected periodically and be subject to planned maintenance.
Effective adaptation of port assets and infrastructure to climate change, including rising sea levels and increasing storminess, is essential for business continuity and safety management. Guidance on climate change adaptation is available from PIANC.
Navigable channels are the arteries of a port. They must have adequate depth and width for the maximum size of vessels using the port. The regular survey of channels and the optimum placement of aids to navigation are among the primary responsibilities of ports and usually require the permission of a national lighthouse authority. Many ports, as Local Lighthouse Authorities under the national organisation, are responsible for the maintenance of Aids to Navigation in their area of jurisdiction.
The increasing size of ships is a challenge for ports which in order to remain competitive may need to increase the depth and breadth of their approach channels and berths. Dredging and the disposal of dredged material have become increasingly contentious due to potential environmental impacts. This can affect the timely development of port facilities.
Vessels optimize efficiency as they navigate between major ports. As a result shipping can be highly concentrated into modern sea-lanes. The presence of deep water routes and traffic separation schemes may increase the difficulty of safe port access for visiting vessels.
Ports are increasingly operating on reduced under-keel clearance margins due to increasing vessel size, which in turn requires more efficient hydrographic data and services. Ports need to be able to collect, process and publish data on port conditions in a timely manner and provide increasing amounts of meteorological and tidal data in real time.
When locks and bridges are part of the port’s infrastructure there can be a conflict between the scheduling of ships and use of public access routes over locks and bridges. Maritime security must also be considered when roads and rail cross waterways used by ships.
With the increasing emphasis on environmental sustainability, many ports have responded to ensure that their operations are environmentally sustainable and committed themselves to working towards improved environmental performance through focused action on the following areas: air quality, energy conservation and climate change, waste management, noise management, and water (both consumption and quality) management.
Harbour Masters have a key role to play including the implementation of pollution-prevention measures and the development of contingency plans and responses to oil spills, dealing with the immediate effects of the oil spill and aiming to minimise the impact on the port’s customers and stakeholders.
Harbour Masters may control waste management services in ports, including the disposal of dangerous chemicals. Ballast water protocols aim to prevent the accidental introduction of exotic and potentially invasive aquatic organisms into ports in order to protect the marine environment.
A further environmental concern is the need to reduce greenhouse gases. Sources of air pollution within ports can be of concern because of the potential for harm to both port users and the health of people living close to the port.
Waste management services in ports, including the disposal of dangerous chemicals, may be strictly controlled by the Harbour Master to ensure compliance with all relevant laws and regulations. IMO MEPC.1/Circ.834 15 April 2014 CONSOLIDATED GUIDANCE FOR PORT RECEPTION FACILITY PROVIDERS AND USERS is intended to be a practical users’ guide for ships’ crews who seek to deliver MARPOL residues/wastes ashore and for port reception facility providers who seek to provide timely and efficient port reception services to ships.
The International Convention for Control and Management of Ship’s Ballast Water and Sediments came into force in 2017 and represents a significant step in the protection of the marine environment. The IMO has developed a manual entitled "Ballast water management - how to do it" (ISBN 978-92-801-1681-6, sales number: I624E).
Ships wishing to take on fuel, for instance HFO (Heavy Fuel Oil), MDO (Marine Diesel Oil), MGO (Marine Gas Oil) or LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) must supply the grade, the quantity and the start and stop time of bunker operations. The master of the receiving ship and the skipper of the bunker barge must register the operation in a bunker oil record book. A ship / ship safety bunker checklist must be completed by both parties. This can be checked by the harbour master’s staff and bunker operations can be stopped if safety rules are not followed. The World Ports Climate Initiative has developed guidelines for safe procedures for bunkering of LNG. These can be found here
The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) is the main international convention covering prevention of pollution of the marine environment by ships from operational or accidental causes. Annex I covers prevention of pollution by oil from operational measures as well as from accidental discharges. Ports and harbours must offer oil reception facilities for oil-water residues, slops and bilges. In accordance with rules for products specified in Annex II of the convention, shore reception facilities are required, because, for instance, category A products can only be discharged to a shore tank and cannot be pumped overboard. That is why there are terminals in a harbour where chemical tankers and product tankers can wash their tanks and send the wash waters ashore. Ventilation of ship tanks can also be a problem if toxic gases could be emitted into the atmosphere. Therefore there is an obligation to use VPR-lines (Vapour Return), which circulate the vapours in a closed circuit between the ship tanks and the shore tanks while in port. During tank cleaning the ship tanks have also to be kept inert, so that there is no risk of explosion.
Ships' emissions to the air are governed by MARPOL Annex VI. Sources of emissions within ports are a serious concern and affect not only the environment, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, but also potentially the health of port users and those who live and work close to the port. Annex VI sets limits on sulphur oxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from ship exhausts and prohibits deliberate emissions of ozone depleting substances; designated emission control areas set more stringent standards for SOx, NOx and particulate matter. IMO has set a global limit for sulphur in fuel oil used on board ships of 0.50% m/m (mass by mass) from 1 January 2020. This will significantly reduce the amount of sulphur oxide from ships and should have major health and environmental benefits for the world, particularly for populations living close to ports and coasts.
Onshore power supply (OPS) is one of the strategies for reducing the environmental impact of seagoing vessels in ports. Further information can be found at the World Ports Climate Initiative website
A port's response to an oil spill is generally in accordance with a contingency plan which sets out the organisation and procedures, information and response resources and clean-up techniques, as well as providing guidance on administrative and operational procedures involved in the preparation, mobilization, operation and termination of an oil spill response. How this is provided varies from country to country but, in general terms, the plan deals with the immediate effects of the oil spill and aims to minimise the short, medium and long-term impacts on the port’s customers and stakeholders. A primary objective of any response to an oil spill is to ensure that there is a return to normality as soon as possible.
Parties to the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation (OPRC) are required to establish measures for dealing with pollution incidents, either nationally or in co-operation with other countries. Ships are required to report incidents of pollution to coastal authorities and the convention details the actions that are then to be taken.
States which are party to OPRC 90 and OPRC-HNS (hazardous & noxious substances) Protocols are required to establish a national system for responding to oil and HNS pollution incidents, including a designated national authority, a national operational contact point and a national contingency plan. This needs to be safeguarded by a minimum level of response equipment, communications plans, regular training and exercises for which the harbour master may be responsible. Parties to the Convention are required to provide assistance to others in the event of a pollution emergency and provision is made for the reimbursement of any assistance provided.
It was reported from Cape Town towards the end of May that South Africa is emerging as a hub of training in marine aids to navigation (AtoNs) for other developing countries keen to establish their maritime transport sector as a safe, secure and environmentally sound pillar of socio-economic growth. This was clear from an address by David Gordon, Executive Manager: Lighthouse and Navigational Systems (LNS) of Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA) at the Pre-Conference Forum of the 19th IALA Conference in Incheon, Republic of Korea on 26 May.
More than 500 delegates attended the 19th IALA Conference which was held in the port city of Incheon, Republic of Korea, from 26 May to 2 June 2018.
A total of 94 technical presentations were made in 13 technical sessions and two special sessions over four days, and Conference participants were able to see and discuss the latest developments in aids to navigation and VTS technology in the large industrial exhibition, where a record number of IALA Industrial Members exhibited.
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