The cruise vessel sailing South-Spitsbergen national park at Svalbard. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

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

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.
January 14, 2024


By Eilís Quinn 

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.

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

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

In all, 1661 unique ships were logged.

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.)

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.  


“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 

Top 10 polar code

  • 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 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.

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.”

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.


This story is posted on the Barents Observer as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.




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