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Live from SMM Hamburg

A look back, and forward, from SMM 2014

A look back, and forward, from SMM 2014
As SMM 2014 draws to a close, and the taxi drivers and hoteliers of Hamburg consider how to spend their newfound fortunes, what lessons are the show's attendees taking away from the fair?

The tone of discussions at the global maritime environmental congress (gmec), co-organised by Seatrade Communications, had certainly changed from the same event two years ago. Further sulphur emissions regulation in ECAs is almost upon us on 1 January 2015, and the debate on whether the regulation is fair or necessary seems largely to have been left behind.

The industry, despite being resigned to the new sulphur limits, had no clear consensus was apparent as to how it will meet the limits in the longer term, with delegates and speakers alike suggesting a vague mix of LNG, low sulphur fuels and scrubbers. The only real agreement was that no one solution met the needs of any great majority of situations, and really its down to the individual shipowner to take a long look at their own operations, on a ship by ship basis, to see how best to adhere to the rules.

Overshadowing the sulphur issue, at least within Europe, is the matter of enforcement. Should a ship choose to ignore the rules, who would find out and how? Further to that, if a ship is found to have polluted illegally, who would have jurisdiction to enforce the rules? What penalties would they face? An unscrupulous owner could reap rewards of tens of thousands of dollars. Is there a robust enough structure of fines in place across Europe to make breaking the law less attractive? Despite the senior representatives in the room from across the shipping spectrum, none of those questions had firm answers, but the fear of the high-sulphur gambler was apparent.

Two years ago, talk of the dire state of shipping markets on the show floor were as frequent as ironic mentions of gangnam style in the bars around Hamburg, and thankfully conversations about both seemed to have eased in the intervening 24 months. Whether attendees have reconciled themselves with a "new normal", or the prospect of revival in some markets was keeping people's thought in happier places, this year's SMM certainly seemed more upbeat.

Another discussion that had changed its tone since SMM 2012 was that on ballast water management. Two years ago the Ballast Water Management Convention (BWMC) was a distant problem which some seemed convinced might never reach ratification. Now there are mentions of a possible ratification within 12 months, although other areas seem to have moved at a slower pace.

Possibly owing to the US introduction of its ballast water rules, and the lack of any US type approved systems, orders of ballast water systems are down at a time when newbuilds leaving shipyards are almost guaranteed to need them in the early part of their lifetime. BWMC implementation might have moved forward, but the prevailing response is still "wait and see."

And come SMM 2016 what are now looming regulatory burdens will have become a part of day to day business and, if the financial reports and public comments of large shipowners and operators are to be trusted, the show will land at a time of much improved fortune for the shipping industry as markets rebalance.

With a show the size of SMM, there are around 50,000 different experiences of the show, and opinions to go with them. If you have been at the show and are looking to debrief with fellow attendees with similarly tired feet, your comment and opinion are welcomed on Twitter or our Linkedin group.