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Governance of Shipping

The ownership and management chain surrounding any ship can embrace many countries and ships spend their economic life moving between different jurisdictions, often far from the country of registry. There is therefore, a need for international standards to regulate shipping – which can be adopted and accepted by all. The Titanic disaster of 1912 spawned the first international Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) convention, still the most important treaty addressing maritime safety.

The Convention establishing the International Maritime Organization (IMO) was adopted in Geneva in 1948 and IMO first met in 1959. IMO’s main task has been to develop and maintain a comprehensive regulatory framework for shipping and its remit today includes safety, environmental concerns, legal matters, technical co-operation, maritime security and the efficiency of shipping.

A specialized agency of the United Nations with 170 Member States and three Associate Members, IMO is based in London in the United Kingdom with around 300 international staff.


IMO’s specialized committees and sub-committees are the focus for the technical work to update existing legislation or develop and adopt new regulations, with meetings attended by maritime experts from Member Governments, together with those from interested intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations.

The result is a comprehensive body of international conventions, supported by hundreds of recommendations governing every facet of shipping including:

  • Measures aimed at the prevention of accidents, including standards for ship design, construction, equipment, operation and manning. Key treaties include SOLAS, the MARPOL convention for the prevention of pollution by ships and the Safety Training and Certification of Watch keepers Convention (STCW) on standards of training for seafarers.
  • Rules concerning distress and safety communications, the International Convention on Search and Rescue and the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation.
  • Conventions which establish compensation and liability regimes – including the International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage, the convention establishing the International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage and the Athens Convention covering liability and compensation for passengers at sea.

Conventions adopted at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) are absorbed into Canadian law through the Canada Shipping Act 2001 (CSA2001).  Inspection and monitoring of compliance are the responsibility of member States. In the case of Canada, enforcement is the responsibility of Transport Canada under the Authority of the Canada Shipping Act 2001.

As a strong voice at IMO, Canada plays a role in crafting the original conventions. Their incorporation into Canadian law is therefore largely uncontroversial.

Port State Control (PSC) is a ship inspection program whereby foreign vessels entering a sovereign state’s waters are boarded and inspected to ensure compliance with various major international maritime conventions.

PSC programs are regional in nature. Several countries sharing common waters have grouped together under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to ensure that vessels trading in their area are compliant with regulated standards in all respects. There are two MOUs to which Canada is signatory: the Paris MOU and the Tokyo MOU.

Today, we live in a society which is supported by a global economy, which simply could not function if it were not for shipping. IMO plays a key role in ensuring that lives at sea are not put at risk and that the marine environment is not polluted by shipping as summed up in IMO’s mission statement:

Safe, Secure and Efficient Shipping on Clean Oceans