The Importance of Cargo Declaration

Before transporting cargo, a shipper must submit information about the specifics of the load. This process is called cargo declaration, and this document determines how cargo should be safely stored and handled while in transit. But why exactly is cargo declaration so important? And what happens if cargo is misdeclared or undeclared? Below, we’ll cover all the ins and outs of cargo declaration. 

Understanding Cargo Declaration

A shipper must prepare and present a cargo declaration to customs before shipping a cargo load. This declaration includes a general description of the cargo, such as its gross mass and any special properties associated with the load. Knowing what the cargo contains and how much it weighs influences how and where it’s loaded on the vessel. 

There’s also a Danger Goods Declaration (DGD), which oversees cargo classified as hazardous because it poses a threat to the crew and vessel. This includes any kind of cargo that could pollute, combust, corrode, or poison, such as certain chemicals, radioactive waste, and gases, among other dangerous materials. The DGD is a code that determines transportation procedures associated with proper labeling and safely packing, storing, and securing the cargo. 

When declaring any kind of cargo, it’s essential that the shipper provides accurate information about the shipment to help ensure the proper safety precautions are taken when transporting it.

But unfortunately, misdeclaration of the weight or hazardous content is actually quite common. In fact, it’s become customary among shippers trying to cut corners, avoid extra charges, or even transport illegal content. 

Incidents Due to Misdeclaration of Goods

Some reports suspect that each year, roughly 150,000 “container time-bombs” carry misdeclared goods worldwide.

Sometimes, these misdeclared (or undeclared) shipments get away without incident, but on the off chance, there is an incident, the effects can be catastrophic. 

For instance, dangerous goods can ignite fires and explosions, while overweight cargo can ground or even sink a vessel. Not only can this damage the vessel and other cargo on board, but it puts the crew in danger, too. Furthermore, these incidents can pollute and harm the marine environment when containers fall overboard or chemicals leak into the ocean. 

The following are just a few recent accidents associated with misdeclared and undeclared cargo: 

  • DENEB, Container Ship: In June 2011, the DENEB container ship capsized in the Port of Algeciras. Investigations found that roughly one in ten containers on board exceeded their weight declaration. The total weight of the cargo in question was four times as much as the declared weight—roughly 93 tons—causing the ship to sink. 
  • Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach: On March 4, 2022, a cargo container waiting to be loaded on a vessel caught fire. The cargo was misdeclared as carrying synthetic resins when it actually held lithium-ion batteries, which are considered hazardous materials. While the fire was contained at the port, the incident could have been far more devastating if the cargo had been on the ship when it caught fire.
  • APL Austria: In March 2017, a fire broke out on the APL Austria cargo ship while it was en route to Cape Town, South Africa. The initial investigation suspected that an undeclared compound, calcium hypochlorite, caused the fire, which destroyed more than 100 other cargo containers on board. 

Preventing Misdeclared Cargo

In light of recent incidents, the National Cargo Bureau inspected 500 container ships and found that 55% had issues with the way the cargo was declared, labeled, or secured.

Accidents happen, but in the case of incidents associated with misdeclared goods, these findings suggest they can be avoided. 

To improve the safety of container ships, the shipping industry is working toward developing more stringent documents and declaration procedures, which will likely involve more diligent inspections and higher penalties and fees associated with misdeclaration violations. Additionally, we can expect the industry to experiment with advanced technology and machine learning to further assist with more accurately identifying goods and calculating their weight.


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