Maritime Environmental Regulations: Marpol Annex V

Chris Riley by Chris Riley Updated on December 5, 2021. In nauticalknowhow

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What is Marpol Annex V?

Understanding marine environmental regulations is an important part of being a boater. In particular, you need to be aware of rules and regulations around pollution. Ocean pollution is a massive issue that still does not get the attention it deserves. The old adage “out of sight out of mind” is very much at play and the result is that few people who never spend time on the water have no idea just how bad it really is.

Despite this, there are regulations in place that deal with marine pollution and garbage at sea. One of the most relevant ones for boaters is known as Marpol Annex V. It’s a part of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973 as modified by the Protocol of 1978, often abbreviated down to Marpol 73/78.

What is Marpol 73/78?

Created by the International Maritime Organization, Marpol 73/78 is an international marine environmental convention. There are 156 countries that have signed on to Marpol and these represent the majority of nations in the world that have any ability to ship or conduct business at sea.

Every vessel that comes from a country signed on to Marpol is subject to follow the guidelines it lays out, no matter where in the world they are.

The Marpol convention is broken down into six specific parts. Each of these parts is known as an annex. Each annex details rules and regulations for members as it relates to a different, specific kind of pollution.

The Marpol Annexes at a Glance

There are six Marpol annexes, as we said. The various rules and stipulations for these annexes have been ratified and amended at various times. The six annexes are:

  • Annex I: Prevention of pollution by oil & oily water
  • Annex II: Control of pollution by noxious liquid substances in bulk
  • Annex III: Prevention of pollution by harmful substances carried by sea in packaged form
  • Annex IV: Pollution by sewage from ships
  • Annex V: Pollution by garbage from ships
  • Annex VI: Prevention of air pollution from ships

Not every member state has signed on to every single annex. For instance, only 72 of the members have signed to annex VI.

Protecting the Marine Environment

Obviously, every annex has an important part to play when it comes to protecting the ocean. The Coast Guard is tasked with helping to ensure these annexes are followed by ships at sea. It’s just one of the many laws and regulations the Coast Guard has to uphold. These can cover a range of things, from the smuggling of drugs to illegal fishing. This is, of course, in addition to their duties as a rescue organization. As you can see, the Coast Guard has their hands full at the best of times.

Many of us only see a fraction of the garbage that’s out there. Things like plastic bottles and bags floating on the surface. But some people dump some extreme and dangerous items in the water. Things like appliances, automobiles and more. These aren’t just dangerous to marine life with the potential to injure animals or poison them with harmful chemicals. They’re also potentially dangerous to boaters. Imagine you’re out for an afternoon and the tide’s low enough that the bottom of your boat hits a refrigerator someone tossed in the water. If you’re going fast enough in the right kind of boat, that could gut your entire vessel and sink you and your passengers in a matter of moments. Unfortunately, that’s the level of pollution and trash that the Coast Guard and other organizations have to deal with.

As a result of all of the trash people toss out, the Coast Guard actually does a lot of work cleaning up garbage as outlined in Annex V. This annex, dealing with garbage being dumped at sea, is heavily concerned with the dumping of plastics.

Annex V came into law back in 1988. If you were around back then, especially on the sea, you may remember what things were like. Plastic six-pack rings were extremely popular at the time. They had become a scourge of the oceans and numerous animals, from fish to turtles to birds, were routinely getting trapped in them. Back in 1987, the Associated Press reported that as many as one million seabirds and 100,000 mammals per year were dying from the 6-pack rings alone.

Under the rules of Annex V, the trash that can be expelled from a vessel at sea is strictly regulated.

If your vessel is over 26 feet long, you have to include a placard on board that relates this information to the crew. If your vessel is over 40 feet and meets certain requirements then there are additional steps that must be taken.

Your 40+ foot vessel must have a gallery and berthing on board to qualify for this. It must operate beyond three miles and it may also qualify if it engages in commerce. Under those conditions, it needs to have a garbage management plan. They also need to keep accurate records of what comes in and what goes out.

Violation of Marpol Annex V can result in steep fines and potential imprisonment. Fines can reach $50,000 and there can also be civil penalties up to $25,000. In addition, each violation could carry a prison term up to 5 years.

Who is the International Maritime Organization?

As we established, Annex 5 and Marpol in general were put together by the International Maritime Organization. While that sounds like it must be a big deal, you’d be forgiven if you don’t know the name. Many people don’t, in fact. But it is an important organization.

The international Maritime Organization, or IMO, dates all the way back to 1948. Initially, it was known as the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization and didn’t change the name until 1982.

The organization was born from a UN agreement between member states, but it was a long time coming before it was in place and affecting any policy. The group didn’t even meet for the first time until 10 years after it had been established on paper.

Today there are 174 members in the IMO. There are only a handful of countries that are not members and all are landlocked, this having little interest in being a part of the organization. The organization as a whole is concerned with regulating the shipping industry worldwide. This includes developing policies not just relating to pollution but safety, security, legal procedures, cooperation between members, and efficient operations.

What Qualifies as Garbage on a Ship?

This question may sound silly, but it’s important to understand what this means. Legally, there are different ways to define garbage. If you look at our breakdown of the Marpol Annexes, you can see that they divide pollution into several forms. So, for instance, if you were to dump some oil overboard, that would be pollution, but not necessarily garbage. You’d be dealing with Annex I and not Annex V in that case. It can get a little confusing.

For the purposes of Annex V, garbage is any kind of plastic whatsoever. This cannot be dumped off of any vessel. Certain kinds of garbage can be dumped at sea and others cannot. Annex V breaks down garbage in the following ways:

  • Food waste that has been chopped or ground up. When they refer to food that has been ground up, they really mean it. To meet this definition, the particles of food need to be small enough to pass through a screen that has openings no larger than 25 millimeters across. That works out to just under one inch.
  • Food waste that has not been chopped or ground up
  • Cargo residue not in wastewater
  • Cargo residue in wastewater
  • Cleaning agents in cargo hold wash water
  • Cleaning agents in deck wash water
  • Animal carcasses
  • All other trash including plastic, ashes, cooking oil, fishing gear, floating dunnage, lining and packing materials, synthetic ropes, bags, glass, metal, bottles, rags, crockery and paper. Essentially, everything not covered in the first seven categories.

Most of us as responsible boaters realize that dumping things like plastic and bags in the sea is a terrible idea. But it’s good to know that, under Marpol regulations, anything on your vessel falls under regulations that need to be adhered to. Most people wouldn’t think twice about throwing food waste overboard, for instance, thinking it’s no big deal. And it’s true that you can, in fact, throw food waste overboard. But you need to make sure you’re following the proper guidelines for doing so. That means no dumping your chicken wing bones off the back of the boat into the marina.

What Isn’t Garbage on a Ship and Other Exceptions

It’s worth noting that there is an important exception to what Marpol Annex V has to say about garbage. This is less of a concern to larger vessels that adhere to these regulations. However, for smaller vessels, especially recreational ones, this is important. While the regulations detail things such as food waste and also animal carcasses, fish is not mentioned here in specific. This is important because fish waste does not fall under these regulations.

When it comes to dumping waste, fresh fish or fish parts are not subject to these regulations. At least not insofar as we’re talking about fish caught and processed while you’re out on your boat. So if you catch a fish and clean it, that’s not throwing garbage in the water. Likewise, if you throw a fish back that died, get rid of old bait fish, or even chum the waters. All of this is acceptable under Annex V. As long as the fish was dumped in the water as a part of your activities while you were on the water, you’re in the clear.

There is also a limitation to the regulations when it comes to emergency procedures. If a ship needs to dump garbage in order to secure the ship itself or the lives of its crew, this is permissible. That means if you’re taking on water, for instance, and need to lose weight by dumping trash overboard. Basically, any situation in which you are preserving the lives of people on board is acceptable if discharging garbage is a result of those actions.

Likewise, if the ship takes damage that results in garbage being discharged, this doesn’t qualify as a violation of Annex V. This is provided that all reasonable precautions have been taken before and after the damage to prevent discharge.

Finally, it is normally prohibited to dispose of synthetic fishing nets in the ocean. These are a huge danger to wildlife and have resulted in the deaths of many mammals, fish and sea turtles that become tangled and can’t escape. Every precaution should be taken to ensure nets are never lost. However, if every reasonable precaution was taken and a net is still lost, this will not be considered a violation. The regulations are written to recognize that sometimes the unexpected will happen. The result can be a net that is destroyed or torn away from the boat with no hope of retrieving it.

What Does Marpol Annex V Say About Garbage?

The reason Marpol Annex V breaks down these types of garbage is because each has different rules for disposal. These rules apply to any vessel from a member country at sea, no matter where they are. That means vessels from the United States, Canada, Australia, the UK and most other nations. This does not just apply to commercial craft but recreational craft such as yachts.

You can read the full text of Marpol Annex V here. However, in general, there are some basic rules which you need to remember.

Everything in that seventh category of garbage is prohibited from disposal at sea. All plastic waste, metal, glass and so on. There are no circumstances when that will be permitted. However, there are occasions when garbage from those other six categories may be dumped, but they vary. There are special regulations just for platforms. There are also two sets of regulations for ships. One known as Regulation 4, deals with ships outside special areas and Arctic waters. The other, Regulation 6, deals with ships that are within special areas or Arctic waters. Regulation 6 is more restrictive than Regulation 4.

Under Regulation 4, you can dump ground up food waste as long as you are en route to a destination and are at least 3 nautical miles from the nearest land. The text also indicates you should try to do this as far from land as possible. You can dump unground food waste 12 miles from land. Cargo residues may also be dumped at least 12 nautical miles from land under Regulation 4.

Cleaning agents are permitted to be dumped under Regulation 4. This is under the assumption that they are environmentally friendly, it should be noted. You should never be using cleaners on a boat that can harm the marine environment.

Animal carcasses may also be dumped, but this has to be greater than 100 nautical miles from shore but as far as possible, and in the deepest possible waters.

These regulations are often tighter for Regulation 6 but, again, those are restricted to special areas.

One thing to remember is that there is an overarching regulation for mixed garbage. For instance, if you have food garbage that’s cross contaminated or a bag of trash with kitchen waste but also plastic in it. In the event that you’re dealing with any kind of garbage that may be mixed with any harmful substances, the strictest guidelines are to be applied. That means, no matter where you are, you are prohibited from dumping that garbage at sea.

Proper Placards

If a vessel is over 12 meters long, it needs to have a placard on display that details Marpol Annex V. This is detailed in Regulation 10.1. The placards should break down what all passengers and crew need to know about garbage disposal. They should be written in the predominant language of the vessel. In addition, they should be written in other languages if they are traveling to ports in other countries where the chief language of the boat is not spoken. Typically that would be English, French or Spanish in addition to the language origin. These placards should be placed where they are easily accessed and read by anyone on the vessel who may be dealing with garbage.

What are Special Areas?

As it relates to Annex V, special areas include the following:

  • The Mediterranean sea area
  • The Baltic sea area
  • The Black sea area
  • The Red sea area
  • The Gulf area
  • The North Sea area
  • The Antarctic Area (south of latitude 60 degrees south)
  • The Wider Caribbean Region, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea

For most boaters in and around North America, it’s clear that the special areas are not places we’ll ever get to. The Arctic waters are the most likely place anyone from this neck of the woods will go. And even then, that’s pretty rare. As such, the regulations outlined in Regulation 6 are likely not going to be all that relevant to most boaters. That said, Regulation 4 is one you should familiarize yourself with at the link we provided.

What is a Garbage Management Plan?

In order to comply with Marpol Annex V, vessels above 100 gross tonnes are required to have a garbage management plan. This also applies to platforms or vessels with 15 or more crew. That sounds all well and good, but most of us have no idea what that means. How would one even decide what needs to be included in such a plan? Let’s take a look at what a garbage management plan is and how they are executed.

As the name suggests, a garbage management plan is an in depth and thought out approach to dealing with garbage on a ship. If you’re heading out in a fishing kayak, do you need a garbage management plan? Not at all. But if you have a yacht and a crew of people on board, it becomes relevant. Or even a larger fishing boat with a few people on board. If there are passengers or crew making garbage, it’s a good idea to make sure everyone knows what they can and can’t do with that garbage. As mentioned above, you are not required to have an in depth plan written out unless you’re a larger vessel.

A typical garbage management plan is a fully realized document that crew or passengers can have access to that outlines everything related to how garbage is handled on board. That means it details all procedures for dealing with garbage from the moment it is produced. This includes initial disposal methods, as well as storage over the course of an entire journey. It also details processing if it’s relevant, such as in the case of anything being crushed or ground up. Finally, the proper methods of permanent disposal have to be laid out clearly in adherence with Marpol Annex V. That means details what can be disposed of at sea, as well as when and how it can be done. In addition, it means clearly indicating what can’t be disposed of at sea, and what needs to be done with that garbage en route and then finally when the vessel does get to shore.

Anyone who works on a ship needs to be fully trained in how to manage garbage at sea. There should be one person put in charge of ensuring it’s adhered to, but everyone should be familiar. This includes familiarity with Marpol Annex V and its regulations. If you’re not commercial, it’s not a subject you need to be certified in by any means. But it’s still something you want to know about.

By some estimates, about 17.6 billion pounds of trash hits our oceans every single year. That is an absolutely staggering amount of garbage. To put that in terrifying perspective, it’s believed that by the year 2050, the plastic in the ocean will outweigh all the fish. Imagine if your town had trash piled up that weighed more than all of the people in it. It’s almost unbelievable, and it clearly keeps getting worse.

As responsible boaters, we really need to do everything we can do to curb this pollution issue. That means taking every opportunity to ensure we are being stewards of the environment and caring about the activity we enjoy so much. Anyone who truly loves boating and fishing needs to do their part so that we and future generations can keep enjoying it.

What All Belongs in a Garbage Management Plan?

There are a few basic piece of information any garbage management plan should include:

  • The details of the ship itself
  • A brief overview of Marpol Annex V
  • Placards
  • A process for collecting garbage on board the ship
  • A detailed list of the equipment available on the ship for collecting, storing or processing garbage. The methods by which this equipment can collect, store and process garbage should also be included.
  • Details for how passengers or crew are to separate ship generated garbage. This ensures no cross contamination between kinds that can be disposed of in certain ways and others that cannot. Containers should be clearly labelled with what kinds of garbage they are meant to hold.
  • Emergency information including what to do in the event of accidental discharges.
  • Details on what needs to happen at the reception facility when the vessel gets to port. This will deal with who unloads the garbage and how once they are able to do so.
  • Details of the training available and required to manage the garbage facilities on board.
  • Details of or a map to all the garbage collection points on board.
  • Information regarding how to fill out the garbage record book logs.

Managing Garbage

It’s all fine and good to say a ship needs to manage garbage. How is that facilitated? If vessels are expected to hold their trash at sea, it needs to go somewhere when they are not at sea. That’s where members of the IMO come into play. It is expected that those countries adhering to Marpol Annex V will have facilities set up for ships to manage their garbage when they arrive in port.

Ideally, this will be a swift and easy process. The vessel will be accommodated when it comes into port in whatever member nation. Garbage will be quickly and easily offloaded at whatever facility is available to ensure the vessel is able to continue normal operations in a quick and easy way.

What is a Garbage Record Book?

Vessels of over 400 gross tonnage are required to keep a garbage record book according to Marpol Annex V. This also applies to vessels certified to carry more than 15 people between ports of member nations. The garbage record book is pretty much what it sounds like. It is a thorough accounting of the trash and what was done with it.

A typical entry in a garbage record book will start with the relevant time information. The person in charge of the garbage management plan will likely be keeping the records here. A date and time for the entry needs to be recorded. The position of the ship at that time should also be included for the record. Then it can detail the type of garbage and the estimate of the weight that is being recorded. It needs to detail whether trash was incinerated or discharged. Then the book will be signed. It’s required that a vessel keep these record books for a period of two years past the final entry in any given log book. This makes it easy to go over records should the need arise in the future with some regulatory body.

This is an important feature for any given ship to have, especially if they are travelling from port to port. As we’ve seen, the fines for violating Marpol Annex V can be severe. If a vessel or crewman is accused of violating it, the garbage record book can become an invaluable tool. If there are adequate records that can account for all the garbage on a ship, it can ensure no one gets wrongfully accused. After all, when trash is floating at sea, it can be hard to say one way or another whether it did or did not come from a certain vessel. If your ship passes through someone else’s trash pile, you could even pull it along in your wake. That could make it look like your mess. Accurate records can help keep you free and clear.

On a smaller scale, you can see how this could also be a good idea. Maybe your little fishing boat isn’t legally required to keep such a log book. But if you have the time, it couldn’t hurt to keep notes. That way, if the Coast Guard ever rolls up on you and asks if you’ve been dumping something, you can show you’re a conscientious boater. Clear records are some of the best things you can keep in any situation.

The Bottom Line

Any regulations designed to keep the ocean clean and safe is one a boater needs to know about. These regulations aren’t designed to limit anyone from having a good time. Just the opposite, in fact. These regulations are in place to ensure we can all keep having a good time. And so will future generations of anglers and boaters. So familiarize yourself with the rules. Keep trash on board when you can and if you do discharge anything at sea, make sure it’s done according to the rules.

About Chris

Outdoors, I’m in my element, especially in the water. I know the importance of being geared up for anything. I do the deep digital dive, researching gear, boats and knowhow and love keeping my readership at the helm of their passions.


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