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The Northeast Passage/Northern Sea Route

(by Brit Fløistad and Lars Lothe)


Northern Norway and Svalbard - Coastal Waters

Sailing along the Northeast Passage and the Northern Sea Route means passing through the waters between the northern coastline of mainland Norway and Svalbard, but predominately it means sailing along the coast of the Russian Federation. Coastal zones and national legislation of these two Arctic states thus constitute the framework for sailing along this sea route, as does controversies regarding national jurisdiction in these waters.

Norway extended its territorial sea from 4 to 12 nm in 2003, and at the same time a contiguous zone out to 24 nm was established1 . The extension to 12 nm territorial sea also applies to Svalbard2   and Jan Mayen. A 200 nm EEZ was introduced in the Norwegian legislation in 19763 , and established outside mainland Norway as of 1 January 1977. In June of the same year a 200 nm fishery protection zone was established outside Svalbard4 , and a fisheries zone outside Jan Mayen. The Norwegian government gave two reasons for not implementing an EEZ outside Svalbard5 . Firstly fishery protecting would be satisfactory achieved by a fishery protection zone, and second it was acknowledged that contracting parties to the Svalbard Treaty might challenge a Norwegian economic zone outside Svalbard. This could lead to confrontations, which was seen as not being in the interest of Norway.

Norway has an extensive Maritime Code of 19946   dealing with most private law issues relevant to shipping, but also with certain issues interesting in our connection, such as strict liability for spillage of bunkers oil.

The most central Norwegian Acts relevant to arctic shipping is the Shipping Safety Act of 20077 . The Act deals with all issues related to safety at sea. Geographically, the Act covers internal waters, including those surrounding Svalbard, the EEZ and the Norwegian continental shelf. The Act applies of course to all Norwegian ships, and also to foreign ships “as far as compatible with international law8  The Act does not contain specific rules for Arctic waters, but have detailed provisions for technical and operational safety, human safety, environmental safety etc. Of specific interest, is the Act’s chapter 9 making a safety certificate mandatory for ship-owners, and imposing a duty to establish adequate internal safety management rules, c.f. the description of corporate governance issues earlier in this chapter. There are no provisions for clearance before entering any specific Norwegian zones, as is the case for Canada and Russia, but there is provisions giving the Norwegian Maritime Directorate extensive powers for inspections and the possibility of imposing orders. Further, the Act contains both civil an criminal liability provisions.

Further, the Pollution Act of 19819  applies to the Norwegian internal water and continental shelf. The liability provisions are also given effect within the EEZ. Svalbard itself is explicitly exempted, as a special act on the protection of the environment on Svalbard and in its territorial waters has been passed. When the Norwegian Pollution Act of 1981 applies to the continental shelf, this also includes the part of Norway’s continental shelf which surrounds Svalbard, but where there are parties to the Svalbard Treaty challenging Norwegian exclusive rights. This part of Norway’s continental shelf has geographically been recognized by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) as an integral part of the Norwegian continental shelf.  The Act provides for extensive administrative powers to the Climate and Pollution Agency, much along the same lines as the Maritime Directory. Of specific interest are the liability provisions contained in chapter 8 of the Act. The owner of a business or property, such as a ship-owner, has strict liability for any damage resulting from illegal pollution.

Russian Federation - Coastal Waters

Not surprisingly, Norway has passed substantial legislation pertaining to all aspects of offshore petroleum-industry, with the Petroleum Act of 199610  as the cornerstone. The Act does not directly affect shipping activities, but if Norwegian installations are built in Arctic waters, all ships taking part in the petroleum activity, such as supply- and service-ships, oil-tankers, gas-ships etc. necessarily will have to conduct their operations in conformity with the detailed and comprehensive standards set by the petroleum industry and the Petroleum directorate.

In Russian legislation the Northern Sea Route is described as “the national unified transport line of communication of the Russian Federation in the Arctic, including the Vilkitskii, Shokalskiy, Dmitry Laptev and Sannikov straits11 . It is made clear that navigating on these waterways must be conducted in accordance with provisions laid down in Federal Russian law.

A 12 nm territorial sea appeared in Soviet legislation in 196012 , at a time when the outer limit of the territorial sea, according to international maritime law, was 3 nm. Legislation establishing the status of internal sea waters, territorial sea and contiguous zone of the Russian Federation are laid down in the Federal Act of July 199811 , while provisions regarding the 200 nm EEZ are laid down in the Federal Act of December 199813 .

The point of departure for determining the outer limit of these waters is the baseline. The list of geographical coordinates of the points specifying the position of the baselines was approved by the Resolution of the USSR Council of Ministers 7 February 1984 and 15 January 198514 . In the Federal Act of July 1998 these baselines are described as the low-water line along the coast and a straight baseline joining islands, reefs and rocks in places where the coastline is deeply indented and cut into, or where there is a fringe of islands along the coast or in its immediate vicinity, as well as bays when the straight baseline does not exceed 24 nm15 . It is further stated that straight baselines may be drawn across bays exceeding 24 nm when belonging historically to the Russian Federation16 .

As for the Federal Acts referred to above the Act on internal waters and territorial sea confirms the right to innocent passage through the territorial sea, but lays down certain regulations such as  safety of navigation, including the use of sea lanes, conservation of living resources and prevention of infringement on fisheries and preservation of the environment. Areas where navigation is prohibited and which are temporarily dangerous for navigation may be established in order to ensure the safety of navigation safeguard the interests of the Russian Federation and protect the environment. The Act also gives the Federal Executive Body for Defence the authority to temporarily suspend the right of innocent passage in specific areas of the territorial sea for the purpose of conducting training with weapons17 .

The current regulations for navigating the sea ways of the Northern Sea Route were approved by the USSR Minister of Merchant Marine in September 199018 , and enacted on 1. July 1991, thus opening these sea lanes for international shipping. The Regulations laid down provisions for navigation through the NSR on the basis of non-discrimination and for the purpose of ensuring safe navigation and preserving, reducing and keeping under control marine environment pollution from vessels19 .  The Regulations cover three main areas. The first one relates to the actual navigating through the NSR, and makes it clear that this demands that the owner or the master of the vessel submit a notification and request to Marine Operation Headquarters and also information on guarantee of payment for icebreaker dues. Having been admitted the vessel shall follow assigned sea lanes. A certificate of due financial security with respect to the civil liability of the owner for damage inflicted by polluting the marine environment is required. Compulsory icebreaker-assisted pilotage is established in certain areas. The second part of the Regulations defines the procedure for submitting requests, organization of the pilotage as well as obligations and responsibilities, making it clear that navigating behind an icebreaker does not relieve the master of the vessel from control over the safety of navigating his vessel.

The third part of the Regulations lay down specific requirements regarding design, equipment and supply of vessels navigating the NSR. More precisely the requirements apply to hull, machinery installations, systems and arrangements, stability and watertight integrity, navigational and communication facilities, supplies and emergency outfit and to manning19 . (see also chapter 5).

Special provisions for protecting the marine environment in Russian internal waters, territorial sea and in the EEZ respectively are found in the Federal Acts of 1998. According to the Federal Act on internal waters, territorial sea and contiguous zone the dumping of wastes and the discharge of harmful substances in these waters are prohibited. Conditional exceptions are made for dumping and disposal when incidental to or derived from the normal operations of ships20 . As for environmental protection one of the provisions in the Federal Act on the EEZ has a wording which is almost identical with UNCLOS III article 23421 . There is also a provision for adopting special mandatory measures for the prevention of pollution from vessels in certain parts of the EEZ22 . Reference is also made to the provision on dumping and discharge in the Federal Act on internal waters and territorial waters23 .


  •  1. Ot.prp. 35 (2002-2003) Om lov om Norges territorialfarvann og tilstøtende sone
  •  2. The baselines around Svalbard had been revised in 2001
  •  3. Lov av 17. desember 1976 nr. 91 om Norges økonomiske sone
  •  4. Forskrift av 3. juni 1977 nr. 06 om fiskevernsonen ved Svalbard
  •  5. Foreign Minister Knut Frydenlund in the Storting 1977
  •  6. 1994-06-24 no 39. http://www.ub.uio.no/ujur/ulovdata/lov-19940624-039-eng.pdf
  •  7. Act of 16 February No. 9, 2007
  •  8. Ibid, article 5.
  •  9. Act of March 13, No. 6, 1981.
  •  10. Act of November 29. No. 72, 1996.
  •  11. Federal act of the internal sea waters, territorial sea and contiguous zone of the Russian Federation. 17 July 1998 Article 15
  •  12. Smith, R. W. (1984), National Claims and the Geography of the Arctic. (Proceedings Law of the Sea Institute. 1984)
  •  13. Federal act of the internal sea waters, territorial sea and contiguous zone of the Russian Federation Exclusive Economic zone of the Russian Federation. 2 December 1998
  •  14. INSROP No 147-1999
  •  15. Confer UNCLOS article 10 (4) setting the distance of 24 nautical miles as the limit for when to draw a closing line across a bay
  •  16. Confer ”historic bays” UNCLOS article 298
  •  17. Article 12
  •  18. Regulations for Navigation on the Seaways of the Northern Sea Route. 14 September 1990
  •  19. Gorshkovsky, A.G. Rules to be followed on the Northern Sea Route
  •  20. Article 37
  •  21. Article 32
  •  22. Article 33
  •  23. Article 30

Brit Fløistad and Lars Lothe, 2010, The Northeast Passage and Northern Sea Route 1, CHNL.©