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Legal Perspective - The Elimination of Paper Charts

June 30, 2020

Will the trusted paper chart become extinct in the not-too-distant future? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is initiating a five-year program to put an end to traditional paper chart production. The development isn’t really as earth shattering as it might seem at first glance.

 According to NOAA, sales of electronic navigational charts (ENCs) have increased 435%, while sales of paper charts went down by half since 2008. As for those who use navigational charts as a daily tool on the bridges of container ships and oil tankers, this probably doesn’t even come as news. The International Maritime Organization already requires electronic charts for large vessels on international voyages.
From a legal standpoint, time may tell what legal ramifications could emerge from the elimination of paper charts. Would a plaintiff blame a vessel operator for failing to maintain back-up paper charts if there was an accident resulting from losing electronic navigation resources? Concerns could be raised about a loss of power or a system crash. What if a vessel’s systems were hacked - would the vessel owner be blamed?
Questioning the accuracy of navigational charts after a marine incident is not a new concept. Defendants being investigated in the aftermath of groundings or sinkings have sometimes pointed to their navigational charts as a defense, alleging that they did not accurately reflect water depth, channel boundaries, hazards to navigation, or other factors. Time will tell if the elimination of production paper charts will raise new legal issues.
NOAA is currently in the process of replacing more than 1,200 irregularly shaped electronic navigational chart cells. These come in 130 different scales. By shifting to a dozen different scales, NOAA says that this should result in better detail and consistency with the charts.
NOAA will discontinue the production of print-on-demand paper charts, full-size chart PDFs, NOAA raster navigational charts (NOAA RNC®), BookletChart™ PDFs, NOAA RNC tile service, and the Online RNC [m1]. The NOAA Custom Chart (NCC) application allows users to create charts from the latest data, having the freedom to choose the scale and paper size, centered on a reference point of their choice. A PDF of the chart can be downloaded and printed, with a separate PDF for chart notes.
Shutting down the production of paper charts is expected to start in mid to late 2020, and continue until January 2025. It remains to be seen whether everyone will be warm toward the change. We live in a society where ever-newer forms of technology are readily embraced. People sometimes line up around the block to buy the latest smartphone when a new model is unveiled. For a younger generation of boaters who grew up in the company of tablets and smartphones, there won’t seem to be anything unusual about the absence of paper anyway. And based on sales figures, it looks like they already speak for themselves in terms of electronic chart sales outperforming paper charts by very large margins.
But there are mariners out there who like the idea of a hard copy of a waterproof chart you hold in your hand that you buy from the marine supply store, instead of a printout of a PDF file which is only as good as the quality of a printer’s ink cartridge. Although the advantages of electronic charts are undeniable, paper charts offer something that can’t be filled by an integrated circuit - they offer a connection with the past. Imagine how odd it would seem to a second officer on a coal-fired steamer a hundred years ago to come in from the bridge wing after taking a fix on a star to find the traditional chart room with its hissing steam radiator, clutter of navigational instruments, bookmarked almanacs, and musty charts… all replaced by a sterile workstation filled only with a computer monitor, keyboard, and mouse.
Like paper money, paper charts have endured through the centuries. They safely guided square-rigged ships across vast oceans, and until not too long ago, were once the primary means of marking aids to navigation and sunken wrecks for mariners. Hopefully, they will have utility and value in the decades ahead as more than just reminders of a bygone era.
Reference: National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, Office of Coastal Survey
The online NOAA Custom Chart (NCC) application enables users to create their own charts from the latest NOAA ENC data. Users may define the scale and paper size of custom-made nautical charts centered on a position of their choosing.


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