Stricter biofouling rules impact cruise industry

After pulling through the mass disruption of the pandemic, the cruise industry in Australia and New Zealand is facing a new challenge: complying with more stringent biofouling laws.

A cruise is meant to be the trip of a lifetime, but in recent years it’s become a byword for viral sickness – be it norovirus or Covid-19. Now a new issue has caused havoc for those cruising the waters off Australia and New Zealand, with a number of ships denied permission to dock after they fell afoul of those countries’ tough rules on biofouling.  

At the start of this year, hundreds of passengers found themselves stranded after the Viking Orion was denied permission to dock in Adelaide, because of biofouling on its hull. The ship – having already been denied access to Christchurch and Dunedin in New Zealand – was held around 17 miles offshore to have its hull professionally cleaned by divers, so they could remove what operator Viking called a "limited amount of standard marine growth". Passengers on Princess Cruises’ Coral Princess also missed part of their itinerary in waters around New Zealand after the discovery of an infestation of non-native snails.  

These headline-making delays were a blow for the cruising industry down under after the extended pause in operations due to Covid-19. Australia did not permit cruise ships to return until April 2022, while the first cruise ship only arrived in Auckland, New Zealand in August 2022.  

Cruise ships are not particularly prone to biofouling, but they are prone to making headlines when aggrieved passengers take to social media.  

“Most [cruise operators] use the best available coating systems,” said Australia-based biofouling expert John Lewis, a Fellow of IMarEST and Principal at Biofouling Management Services. “Cosmetic appearance is a consideration, as operators do not want a dirty waterline. Many use non-biocidal ‘foul release’ coatings on the outer hull surfaces as these not only ‘self-clean’ as a result of a cruise ship’s operating profile, but are also available in bright colours.” 

Marine growth would be allowable in most seaports around the world, but New Zealand and Australia have national biofouling regulations. Australia's rules are new, having come into effect in June 2022 and are still being operated under an “education first” period. The rules require operators to provide information on how biofouling has been managed prior to arriving in Australian territorial seas, with the data used to target vessel interventions to manage "unacceptable biosecurity risk."  

Lewis said he would like to see other countries take up rules consistent with those in Australia - but not those of New Zealand, which he called “overly strict”.   

New Zealand makes no apologies for its approach. Earlier this year, Mike Inglis, northern regional commissioner of Biosecurity New Zealand, pointed out that biofouling on the underside of vessels is responsible for introduction of nearly 90% of marine pests. “Because those pests can really impact our environment, unique marine ecosystems, aquaculture industry and economy, vessels that do not meet our biofouling rules may face itinerary restrictions or other compliance action," he said.  

Biofouling isn’t just about preventing the invasion of non-native species; it can also improve vessel performance and efficiency, and reduce emissions and maintenance costs. It’s a balance, however, between preventing fouling and the environmental impact of the chemicals used to keep it at bay. John Lewis worries that, should chemical regulators impose increased restrictions on antifouling biocides, then coatings could become less effective.  

“There are some interesting developments in remotely operated or autonomous in-water cleaning systems,” he said. “However, use of these systems may be stymied by regulations requiring biological and chemical waste capture.” 

Further ahead, potential solutions could involve using UV light to control fouling. Dutch companies AkzoNobel and Philips have joined forces with Damen Shipyards to pioneer the use of UV-C light light-emitting diodes in a coating scheme which emits just enough light to provide total prevention of bio-fouling accumulation on the protected area. Small-scale trials have been successful, and the next step is working on vessel integration. The goal is to create a fully biocide-free fouling control solution with substantial economic and environmental benefits.


Amy McLellan is a journalist and author. She was previously editor of Energy Day. Twitter  @AmyMcLellan2