Shipping analysts are concerned 2005 will see a repeat of last year's heavy congestion experienced at US and European ports.

Many analysts blamed this situation on a surge in Asian imports. This congestion exposed labour and space shortages at some of the busiest ports in the world, according to a report in the Financial Times.

The article cited Jim McKenna, president of the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents several US West Coast terminal companies. He blamed many of the problems faced by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach this year on a lack of dockworkers.

The FT also said the PMA is recruiting and training 3,000 new employees to prevent operations from being brought to a standstill by congestion at southern California ports again this year.

The problems at US West Coast ports, the report said, are rooted not only in staff shortages, but also in operational inefficiencies.

These ports were criticised for not maximising available space at the terminals by stacking container boxes, as is the practice by ports the world over.

The article said terminal operators think placing container boxes on trailers is preferable because it saves time when the truckers arrive to collect them. The downside is that the parked trailers block the terminals. Critics maintain trade-union power prevents this practice from being changed.

Revisions to the 1988 Load Lines Protocol entered into force on January 1, together with amendments to the Guidelines on the Enhanced Programme of Inspections during surveys of Bulk Carriers and Oil Tankers (Resolution A.744(18)).

The Load Line amendments were adopted in June 2003 to Annex B to the 1988 Load Lines Protocol. They include a number of important revisions, in particular to regulations concerning the following: strength and intact stability of ships; definitions; superstructure and bulkheads; doors; position of hatchways, doorways and ventilators; hatchway coamings; hatch covers; and machinery space openings.

The amendments cover additional topics, including: miscellaneous openings in freeboard and superstructure decks; cargo ports and other similar openings; spurling pipes and cable lockers; side scuttles; windows and skylights; calculation of freeing ports; protection of the crew and means of safe passage for crew; calculation of freeboard; sheer; and minimum bow height and reserve buoyancy.

The amendments, which amount to a comprehensive revision of the technical regulations of the Protocol, will apply to approximately two-thirds of the world's fleet.

That is, they will apply to those ships flying the flags of States Party to the 1988 LL Protocol. The amendments do not affect the 1966 LL Convention. Also entering into force on January 1 are amendments to the Guidelines on the enhanced programme of inspections during surveys of bulk carriers and oil tankers (resolution A.744(18)). The amendments include a new appendix 3 to annex 12 of Annex B to the Guidelines relating to the sampling method of thickness measurements for longitudinal strength evaluation and repair methods.

The Round Table of international shipping associations (BIMCO, Intercargo, the International Chamber of Shipping/International Shipping Federation and Intertanko) has updated their Shipping Industry Flag-State Performance Table.

The updated summary for 2004 collates the latest factual information available in the public domain. It is intended to help shipping companies assess the performance, and thus the credibility, of about one hundred major flag state administrations. It is a revision of the data produced in 2003, and is intended to be read in conjunction with the Round Table's Shipping Industry Guidelines on Flag State Performance.

On the basis of the data used in the 2004 update, the following flags were shown to have 12 or more negative performance indicators:

Albania, Bolivia, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Democratic Republic of Congo, Honduras, Madagascar, Mongolia, Sao Tome & Principe, Suriname and Syrian Arab Republic.

In addition, Mongolia is listed for the first time but it is already among those with the poorest performance. Belize, by contrast, previously listed as one of the very worst, has shown considerable improvement.

The Round Table reiterates the age of a ship is not a definitive indicator of quality, and that the condition of a ship is ultimately determined by the standard of its maintenance.

Frank Kennedy is a Dubai-based marine consultant.