The Arctic and Ongoing Polar Shipping Regulation

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Arctic Governance, Polar Shipping, International Maritime Organization, Polar Code


In 2009 the International Maritime Organization (IMO) initiated the development of a mandatory international code for ships operating in polar waters, better known as the Polar Code. At that time, shipping in polar regions was subject to the same international maritime safety standards as any other shipping, despite the substantially more challenging navigational context. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) 1974 did not have a polar class standard requiring vessels to be built to navigate in different ice concentrations and with equipment that can function in very cold temperatures. The protection of the unique and fragile Arctic environment from vessel-source pollution was at the minimum level provided by the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) 73/78, which was significantly less than the protection available for special areas for various types of pollution designated under that instrument's Annexes, such as the Baltic and North Sea, among other areas. The minimal MARPOL standards permitted certain and controlled discharges of wastes in specified concentrations, such as ballast water, clean ballast water and tank washing residues from tankers, and sewage and garbage from all ships. Despite the low concentrations of permissible discharges, they still posed a threat to Arctic ecosystems and species.