The Convention replaced a convention on the law of salvage adopted in Brussels in 1910 which incorporated the "'no cure, no pay" principle under which a salvor is only rewarded for services if the operation is successful.
Although this basic philosophy worked well in most cases, it did not take pollution into account. A salvor who prevented a major pollution incident (for example, by towing a damaged tanker away from an environmentally sensitive area) but did not manage to save the ship or the cargo got nothing. There was therefore little incentive to a salvor to undertake an operation which has only a slim chance of success.
The 1989 Convention seeks to remedy this deficiency by making provision for an enhanced salvage award taking into account the skill and efforts of the salvors in preventing or minimizing damage to the environment.
The 1989 Convention introduced a "special compensation" to be paid to salvors who have failed to earn a reward in the normal way (i.e. by salving the ship and cargo).
Damage to the environment is defined as "substantial physical damage to human health or to marine life or resources in coastal or inland waters or areas adjacent thereto, caused by pollution, contamination, fire, explosion or similar major incidents."
The compensation consists of the salvor's expenses, plus up to 30% of these expenses if, thanks to the efforts of the salvor, environmental damage has been minimized or prevented. The salvor's expenses are defined as "out-of-pocket expenses reasonably incurred by the salvor in the salvage operation and a fair rate for equipment and personnel actually and reasonably used".
The tribunal or arbitrator assessing the reward may increase the amount of compensation to a maximum of 100% of the salvor's expenses, "if it deems it fair and just to do so".
If, on the other hand, the salvor is negligent and has consequently failed to prevent or minimize environmental damage, special compensation may be denied or reduced. Payment of the reward is to be made by the vessel and other property interests in proportion to their respective salved values.