Who Regulates the Shipping Industry?

Table of content

What is the Maritime Supply Chain?

All countries over the world import or export goods. 90% of these cargoes are carried by ships, making the commercial ocean transportation a highly complex and global industry. The activity does not only concern shipping lines and agents, but also seaports and customs authorities, customs brokers, freight forwarders, inland haulage services providers, warehouses, importers and exporters. In order to coordinate all these activities, the sector needs a common regulation at the international level. These are developed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and implemented by local entities. 

How is the shipping industry regulated?

The main regulatory body of the sea transportation industry is the International Maritime Organization (IMO). It is a specialized agency of the United Nations (UN) based in London. Its purpose is to create a regulatory framework in order to: 

  • increase and maintain the shipping world’s safety and security worldwide; 
  • protect sea life and marine environment by preventing pollution from ships and on a larger scale, assist the industry on its path towards sustainability; 
  • promote innovation; 
  • make sure that all signatory countries properly implement any conventions adopt by amending their own national law. 

What is the Meaning of ETA, ETD, ATD, & ATA in Shipping ?

Companies and people around the globe rely on precise predictions of when a vessel will arrive with a shipment of goods and services. In shipping, ETA means…

What are the main conventions set by IMO?

To date, IMO has set no less than 30 conventions that govern the marine shipping industry worldwide. These rules cover all activities of international sea transportation : registration, ship design and construction, equipment, manning, operations and fight against pollution. 

Here are the leading ones: 

  • In 1966, the International Convention on Load Lines specifies a maximum draft to which a vessel is authorized to be loaded, depending on the year season and the hazards identified in a specific zone. The reason is to ensure the crew’s security. 


  • In 1972, the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) establishes the navigation rules to be followed (ship conduct, signals, etc.), mainly in order to avoid collisions at sea. 


  • In 1974, IMO has released SOLAS (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea) regulations concerning commercial vessels’ safety. It lays down the minimum standards for ships’ building, equipment and operation. 


  • In 1978, the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) sets the underlying fundamentals of the vessel crew’s training and certification. 


  • In 1973 (then updated in 1978), the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) is adopted to enhance the prevention of the marine environment pollution by ships.  


  • In 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea set a series of laws and orders regarding the uses of the oceans and marine resources. 


  • The latest regulation called “IMO 2020” under the revised MARPOL Annex VI limits the sulfur level in fuels used by merchant ships operating across the globe at 0.5%. The aim is to lessen the air pollution caused by the sea shipping industry. 

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS)


ICS is the worlds first trade association for shipowners and operators. As such, it represents over 80% of the global merchant tonnage. Since 1961, ICS has the privilege of a consultative status in the shipping industry and contributes to the setting of a regulatory framework at an international level. In these regards, it partners with other trade bodies and various intergovernmental bodies, working on technical, legal, and operational concerns. This means developing guidance and best practices, completed by an amount of free resources that are made accessible to all ship operators globally. 

Who regulates the maritime industry in Europe?

However, the International Maritime Organization cannot make sure that all maritime rules and policies are properly implemented and are complied with in all signatory countries. This is the reason why other bodies are in charge of local markets.

The European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA)

Since 2022, the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) lends technical know-how and operational assistance in various fields: maritime safety improvement, prevention and reduction of pollution caused by ships and marine activities. 

A team of 250 experts headed by Maja Markovčić Kostelac works in Lisbon in Portugal. Their tasks can be either preventive or reactive: 

  • monitoring law application;   
  • evaluating each law’s overall effectiveness; 
  • performing satellite surveillance to detect marine pollution; 
  • sharing reliable information in real-time about all events that happen at sea; 
  • helping governments and authorities develop and implement all the rules set effectively; 
  • managing a network of oil spill recovery vessels and conducting clean-up operations resulting from collisions between ships or a ship and a structure, shipwrecks; 
  • controlling port state; 
  • sharing and promoting best practices on maritime safety, security and environmental issues. 
  • conducting technical inspection of firms categorized by the EU members as “Recognized Organizations”, ships traffic monitoring systems and certification systems in non-EU countries; 
  • making sure that an adequate inspection has been done on each and every vessel calling at EU ports; 
  • reporting vessel activities; 
  • leading consistent investigation of marine accidents and casualties throughout the EU in cooperation with official national bodies like the “BEAmer” in France. For example, this latter intervenes in case the affair concerns French-registered ship or a ship flying the French flag, or has occurred in French internal waters or territorial waters. It even can handle cases outside French seas if French nationals have suffered death or serious personal injury or if it has caused a serious threat or harm to the national territory, the environment and installations or structures over which France has jurisdiction.   

The serviced provided by the EMSA benefits various official entities apart from the IMO: 

  • the European Commission and other European institutions; 
  • the national maritime administrations;  
  • the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) coastal state maritime administrations (this regional trade organization and free trade area bring together Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland); 
  • the countries covered by the European Neighborhood Policy, to the east and south of the EU territory (bordering the Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea and Caspian Sea). 

What is the Meaning of ETA, ETD, ATD, & ATA in Shipping ?

Companies and people around the globe rely on precise predictions of when a vessel will arrive with a shipment of goods and services. In shipping, ETA means…

Who regulates the maritime industry in the United States?

In the United States, the regulation of international sea shipping system is entrusted to the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC). This independent federal agency works together with the Maritime Administration (MARAD) to strengthen port security throughout the American territory, as a support for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Unlike most countries where ports are owned and operated by the government, most US ports belongs to state, local, or private entities. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) works on reducing marine pollution, along with US governmental agencies and other countries’ governments and international organizations. EPA also helps the State Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to reach the objectives agreed under the Cartagena Convention to lower land-based sources of pollution for natural marine ecosystems. 

Conclusion about who regulates the shipping industry

The world’s population growth leads to increased needs in sea transportation of food, raw material, manufactured goods, fuel …, but also to the development of shipping-related activities. The sector hence has to adapt in order to tackle the greatest challenges arisen: make the best out of technological innovation, deal with uncertain freight markets, offset financial headwinds and reach the sustainability goals set.  

This means that new regulations are and will be needed in the coming years in order to improve the safety, cost-efficiency and performance of the ocean transportation industry. 

Frequently Asked Questions About: Regulation of the Shipping Industry

Due to a global increase of the need to transport food, raw material, manufactured goods, and fuel by seat, the sector has had to adapt in order to tackle the greatest challenges arise make the best out of technological innovation, deal with uncertain freight markets, offset financial headwinds and reach the sustainability goals set.  

The four pillars of regulations in the shipping industry are:

  • SOLAS, a treaty that covers the ship’s construction, equipment, and operation.
  • STCW, establishes the standard qualifications of all persons working on board commercial ships at an international level.
  • MARPOL, defines the rules that prevent pollution of the marine environment because of operations or accidents, mainly oil spills.
  • MLC, is meant to protect the seafarers’ rights and also find a way to create fair competition in the market.

A major challenge that regulatory authorities in the shipping industry face are the need to strike a balance between regional initiatives (for example, at EU level) and regulations agreed by the IMO, as measures must be harmonized and compatible.

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