Governance of Arctic Shipping

(from AMSA Report 2009)


The Law of the Sea as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides a fundamental framework for the governance of Arctic marine navigation and allows coastal states the right to adopt and enforce non-discriminatory laws and regulations for the prevention, reduction and control of marine pollution from vessels in ice-covered waters (Article 234).

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the competent UN agency with responsibility for issues related to the global maritime industry. IMO has been proactive in developing voluntary Guidelines for Ships Operating in Arctic Ice-covered Waters, which continue to evolve. The International Association of Classification Societies (IACS) has also developed non-mandatory Unified Requirements for their members that address ship construction standards of the Polar Classes, which are defined in the IMO Guidelines.

There are no uniform, international standards for ice navigators and for Arctic safety and survival for seafarers in polar conditions. And, there are no specifically tailored, mandatory environmental standards developed by IMO for vessels operating in Arctic waters. Mandatory measures, drawn up in accordance with the provisions of customary international law as reflected in UNCLOS, would be an effective way to enhance marine safety and environmental protection in Arctic waters. Expanded Arctic marine traffic increases the possibility of, for example, introducing alien species and pathogens from ballast water discharge and hull fouling.

Governance in shipping is characterized by efforts to promote harmonization and uniformity in international maritime law. The reason for the global approach to shipping governance is that by definition and function, shipping is essentially an international tool in the service of global trade. The term governance highlights the complex range of actors that affect shipping law, policy and practice in the Arctic. Indeed, the largest flag states and suppliers of marine labor do not border the Arctic Ocean.

Natural resource, cruise and maritime trade related shipping in the Arctic is on the increase. As marine insurance at reasonable rates becomes available and an appropriate infrastructure is put in place to service Arctic navigation routes, a concomitant increase in international shipping can be expected. This will raise, among others, safety and marine environment protection concerns. There are complex global and national legal regimes that establish standards for navigation and protection of the marine environment that are applicable in the Arctic, however, for those to be effective, a common understanding of those regimes, along with enhanced regional cooperation in ocean management and greater participation by Arctic states in the global international maritime conventions will be needed. If the Arctic marine environment is to be protected, existing regimes will need to be strengthened by Arctic states and the international community.

Not all Arctic states are parties to important conventions, and indeed not all relevant conventions are in force. There is a dearth of mandatory international standards specifically designed for navigation in the Arctic, as well as voluntary guidelines. Arctic states will need to work closely with global and regional international organizations, the people of the North and the international maritime community in regime-building to facilitate governance of Arctic shipping. 


  •  1. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report 2009

Arctic Council, 2009, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), Arctic Council.©

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