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Updated 22 February 2023

Whilst there is now a strong environmental focus for the shipping industry to reduce carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions, focus on compliance with international and regional sulphur emission regulations must still be a key priority for ship operators. And - don’t forget that a number of regions, states and ports around the world have implemented their own strict sulphur emission limits. 

From time to time Members and clients contact Gard to ask for advice when a ship has been fined for burning non-compliant fuel in a port or waters where special sulphur emission regulations apply. In some cases, ships may have unknowingly burned fuel with a sulphur content exceeding the permissible limit, e.g. because the bunker delivery note (BDN) was not accurate. However, most instances of non-compliance happen because ship operators and crews were not fully conversant with the local air pollution regulations in force.

A number of regions, states and ports around the world have implemented their own strict sulphur emission limits - and the list of such places is growing in the future. Ship operators must therefore ensure crews are familiar with the sulphur emission limits in force in the jurisdiction to which they trade. Crews should also be provided with clear procedures and guidance to this effect.

Below you can find an overview of key issues that may assist ship operators and their masters to remain compliant in some of the places where special sulphur emission regulations apply. However, as new local regulations or changes to existing legislation can be implemented with very little notice, and the regulatory enforcement strategy may differ from one region/port to another, ships’ masters should always seek advice from their agents on local requirements well in advance of the ship’s intended port call.

MARPOL designated emission control areas (ECAs)

The entry into force of the global 0.50% sulphur limit has not altered the requirements applicable in the ECAs designated under Regulation 14 of MARPOL Annex VI. The 0.10% sulphur limit continue to apply inside the North American, US Caribbean, North Sea and Baltic ECAs, and will soon apply in the Mediterranean Sea as well. The IMO website displays the exact coordinates of all ECAs currently in force. 



The Mediterranean Sea ECA is set to come into effect on 1 May 2025

In December 2022, at the IMO MEPC 79, amendments to MARPOL Annex VI were adopted to establish a Mediterranean Sea ECA for sulphur oxides (SOx) and particulate matter. The amendments will enter into force on 1 May 2024, but the requirements will take effect after a 12-month grace period as per Regulation 14.7 of MARPOL Annex VI.

Hence, from 1 May 2025, ships operating in the entire Mediterranean Sea will be required to burn fuel oil with a sulphur content not exceeding 0.10% m/m or use alternative solutions for compliance such as exhaust gas cleaning systems (scrubbers) or sulphur-free fuels. 


European Union (EU)

Under the EU Sulphur Directive, ships at berth in EU ports must use marine fuels with a sulphur content not exceeding 0.10% and complete any necessary fuel changeover operation as soon as possible after arrival at berth and as late as possible before departure.

While guidance on the permissible time for crew to complete a fuel changeover operation may vary from one port to another and depend upon ship type and systems, most port authorities allow one hour to complete the operation. Ships are expected to have compliant fuel onboard upon arrival at the berth and additional delays in the changeover operation caused by time spent procuring and taking delivery of compliant fuel after berthing may not be accepted. Ships that, according to published timetables, are due to be at berth for less than two hours are explicitly exempted from the requirement, and so are the ships which switch off all engines and use shore-side electricity while at berth in ports.

‘Ships at berth’ means ships which are securely moored at berth or at an anchor in an EU port. With delimitations of each port being established locally, Masters should always confirm with ships’ local agent whether or not an outer anchorage is considered to fall within the port limits for the purposes of sulphur emission compliance.


Turkey is not a member of the EU but its sulphur emission regulation is aligned with that of the EU. Hence, all ships are required to use marine fuels with a sulphur content not exceeding 0.10% while at berth in Turkish ports or operating on Turkish inland waterways. The requirement does not, however, apply to ships transiting the Turkish Straits, that is, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, and the Marmara Sea, unless their transit process, e.g. a stay at an anchorage or in a port whilst awaiting passage, exceeds two hours.


A new Israeli regulation went into effect on 23 February 2023, requiring ships berthed in Israeli ports to use marine fuel with a sulphur content not exceeding 0.1% by mass. Alternative solutions for compliance, such as exhaust gas cleaning systems (scrubbers), will also be accepted. According to the Israeli Ministry of Transportation and Road Safety, the new regulation put in place measures for ships at berth similar to those set forth by the EU Sulphur Directive, which means that it applies to ships moored alongside as well as ships anchored within port limits and requires the fuel changeover operation to be completed as soon as possible after arrival at berth/anchorage and as late as possible before departure. For detailed information on the new regulation, please refer to the Israeli government’s Notice MP 27 of 11 January 2023.

Norwegian world heritage fjords

From 1 March 2019, the North Sea ECA 0.10% sulphur limit was extended to include the entire Norwegian world heritage fjord area, including the Nærøyfjord, Aurlandsfjord, Geirangerfjord, Sunnylvsfjord and Tafjord in Western Norway. The exact coordinates of the sea areas included in the heritage fjords are outlined in the Norwegian regulation on environmental safety for ships and offshore units.

Ships of 10,000 gross tonnes and above sailing in the world heritage fjords must also carry an environmental instruction specially adapted to the ship and operation in these areas. The environmental instruction shall ensure that the ship is operated as environmentally friendly as possible through technical and operational measures and crew training. The instruction shall as a minimum include operational and technical measures for reducing particle matter emissions and visible smoke, and speed as a measure for reducing emissions and discharges. The Norwegian Maritime Administration’s guidelines for developing an environmental instruction provide additional details.


Zero emissions in the World Heritage fjords by 2026

The Norwegian Authorities have also kicked off the process of drawing up zero emissions requirements for cruise ships, tourist boats and ferries in the World Heritage fjords by 2026.



On 1 January 2020, the permissible sulphur content of marine fuels used in Iceland’s territorial sea and internal waters, i.e. including the fjords and bays, was reduced from 3.50% to 0.10%, aligning the requirements with those currently in effect in the MARPOL designated ECAs. Iceland’s territorial sea extends 12nm from its coastline. Please see the website of the Government of Iceland for additional information.


In September 2015, China designated its own domestic ECAs and announced a gradual implementation of requirements covering emissions of air pollutants from ships. At the time of writing, a Coastal ECA has been designated and includes all sea areas and ports within China’s territorial sea, as well as a specially designated ECA in China’s southernmost province Hainan, the Hainan Coastal ECA. In addition, two Inland ECAs have been designated which include parts of the Yangtze River and the Xi Jiang River.

While China currently continues to apply a 0.50% sulphur cap in its Coastal ECA, ships destined for the Yangtze River and the Xi Jiang River, or the Hainan province are required to use fuel with a sulphur content not exceeding 0.10% while operating within the defined ECAs. Any fuel change-over operation must be completed prior to the entry into or commenced after exit from an ECA.

The exact coordinates and maps of China’s domestic ECAs are included in our correspondent Huatai Insurance Agency’s Circular PNI1816 of 13 December 2018. It is worth noting that China has declared straight baselines along parts of its coast. This means that China’s baseline, from which its 12nm territorial sea limit must be measured, can lie many nautical miles off its coast.

South Korea

In line with China, South Korea has designated its own domestic ECAs and announced a gradual implementation of requirements covering emissions of air pollutants from ships. The ECAs cover South Korea’s five major port areas: Incheon, Pyeongtaek-Dangjin, Yeosu-Gwangyang, Busan and Ulsan, please refer to the Korean Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries’ (MOF) announcement on 26 December 2019 (in Korean) for details.

At the time of writing, ships at are required to use fuel with a maximum sulphur content of 0.10% at all times while operating within the South Korean domestic ECAs. Any fuel change-over operation must be completed prior to the entry into or commenced after exit from an ECA. Additional details and recommendations on how to comply with the new requirements are also available in MOF’s brochure “Guidance to SOx Emission Control Areas in Korean Ports”. The Korean Register’s Technical Information of 20 January 2020 includes the exact coordinates for the different domestic ECAs.

Sydney, Australia

Following concerns raised by residents living near the White Bay Cruise Terminal in Sydney, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) implemented a 0.10% limit on sulphur emissions from cruise vessels berthing in Sydney Harbour. ‘Cruise vessel’ means a vessel not having a cargo deck, designed exclusively for carriage of over 100 passengers in overnight accommodation and the limit on sulphur emissions applies from one hour after the vessel’s arrival at berth until one hour before the vessel’s departure. Additional details are outlined in AMSA’s Marine Notice No.6/2018.

Panama Canal

Panama is outside of the MARPOL designated ECAS and therefore the global 0.50% sulphur cap applies. However, at the time of writing, vessels planning to transit the Panama Canal are required to switch their main propulsion engines, boilers, auxiliary generator engines, and other ancillary equipment from residual fuels to marine distillate fuels when arriving at Panama Canal (ACP) waters. The geographic limits of ACP waters, as well as information on alternative solutions that may be accepted by the Panama Canal Authorities, are set out in its Shipping Notice N-01 “Vessel Requirements”, which is updated annually. 

California, USA

Although Californian waters fall within the North American ECA designated under MARPOL Annex VI, the state continues to apply its own low sulphur fuel regulations, the California Air Resource Board (CARB) Ocean-Going Vessel (OGV) Fuel Regulation. Ships operating within 24nm of California’s coastline are therefore subject to two separate sets sulphur emission regulations.

While both regulations specify a sulphur limit of 0.10%, the CARB OGV Fuel Regulation requires that the fuel also meet the specifications for distillate grades (marine gas oil or marine diesel oil) and does not permit compliance via scrubbers. Additional information is available via the CARB OGV Fuel Regulation website and a detailed comparison of the two set of regulations that apply in Californian waters can be found in CARB’s Marine Notices 2020-1 and 2020-2.

As far as we are aware, California is the only local legislator that does not accept the use of residual fuels in combination with exhaust gas scrubbers as an acceptable means of reducing vessels’ sulphur emissions below the permissible limits. However, the crew onboard ships that do operate open loop scrubbers must also beware of local restrictions applicable to the discharge of washwater from scrubbing. 

BIMCO maintains a list of local restrictions on the discharge of scrubber wash water and the Exhaust Gas Cleaning System Association (EGCSA) provides similar information in its SOx regulation map.   

Kristin Urdahl
by Kristin Urdahl
Senior Loss Prevention Executive, Arendal