Arctic Council report analyzes flag states and legal obligations in Arctic shipping

A file photo of the Ocean Explorer, a Bahamas-flagged Norwegian cruise ship with 206 passengers and crew, which ran aground in northwestern Greenland, in the Polar Code area, on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. (SIRIUS/Joint Arctic Command via AP)

A recent report examining the flag states of ships travelling in the Arctic shows Russia, Norway and Denmark were the three nations with the most vessels.

The report, “Flag States of Ships in the Arctic,was done by the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) working group using data from its Arctic Ship Traffic Data Base.

The period looked at was 2022, and tallied ships entering the Arctic Polar Code area.

In all, 1661 unique ships were logged.

Flag State Quick Facts for 2022
  • Flag states represented in 2022: 42
  • Flag states with more than 100 ships represented in Polar Code area: 3
  • Flag states with more than 10 ships represented in Polar Code area: 16

Ships flagged to one of the eight Arctic countries: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia or the United States, accounted for 1349 vessels. 

An additional 96 ships were flagged to one of the Arctic Council observer states. (Arctic Council observer states do not participate in the forum’s consensus decisions, but contribute to the Arctic Council through its six working groups.)

Flag states and implications for legal obligations

The report stresses the importance of understanding which countries’ ships are in the Polar Code area as it has implications for safety and conservation.  

A file photo of the Hong Kong flagged Nordic Barents carrying 40,000 tonnes of iron ore leaves Kirkenes in the north of Norway on route to China via the Northern Sea Route. (Helge Sterk/Scanpix Norway/AFP)

“Ship registration – or the flag under which a ship sails – plays a vital function in maritime safety and security as well as protection and preservation of the marine environment,” the report said.

“By linking a ship to a State, the system of ship registration creates international legal rights and obligations, both for the ship and for the State whose flag the ship flies.”

The Polar Code

The International Maritime Organization’s International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters ( known colloquially as the “Polar Code”) came into force on January 1, 2017 in response to concerns around increased shipping in polar regions.

According to the code, ships get categorized based on the expected sea ice conditions they’ll face and are required to obtain certification.

A map of the Polar Code area from the “Flag States of Ships in the Arctic” report. (PAME/Arctic Council)

Additionally, vessel operators must outline their strategies for addressing and steering clear of hazardous ice conditions and temperature challenges.

“While the primary responsibility of ship owners and operators is the safe, efficient, and environmentally sound operation of their ships and the safety and welfare of their crews, Flag States have both the authority and the responsibility to enforce regulations on ships that fly their flag, including regulations relating to ship safety, security, and environmental compliance.” the report said.

“Flag States also have authority and responsibility over the shipboard conduct of the master, officers, and crew of ships that fly their flag.”

Top 10 Flag States with Most Ships in Polar Code Area (2022)
  • 1 Russia: 885 ships
  • 2 Norway: 180 ships
  • 3 Denmark: 122 ships
  • 4 United States: 88 ships
  • 5 Canada: 55 ships
  • 6 Marshall Islands: 50 ships
  • 7 Netherlands: 34 ships
  • 8 Panama: 33 ships
  • 9 Bahamas: 25 ships
  • 10 Liberia: 20 ships

The report, “Flag States of Ships in the Arctic,” is PAME’s fourth Arctic Shipping Status Report. It was released in December. PAME’s three prior reports examined trends in Arctic shipping and focused on heavy fuel oil.

PAME is one of the Arctic Council’s six working groups and is comprised of international experts.The teams examine issues ranging from environmental protection, to sustainable development, to emergency response in the Arctic.

The Arctic Ship Traffic Database was established by PAME in response to the surge in Arctic ship activity and the lack of up-to-date information, includes figures dating back to 2013.

Comments, tips or story ideas? Contact Eilís at eilis.quinn(at) 

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Canada comes out in favour of heavy fuel oil ban in Arctic, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Finland investigates oil leak risks from Baltic Sea shipwrecks, Yle News

Greenland: Stranded cruise ship pulled free at high tide in Greenland, the Associated Press

Iceland: Iceland to restrict heavy fuel oil use in territorial waters, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: LNG-reloading operations end in Norway’s Arctic waters, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Shipping figures rising on Russia’s Northern Sea Route, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Carnival Corporation ships switch to cleaner fuel on Arctic cruises, Radio Canada International

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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