Legal Aspects of Arctic shipping

Arctic navigation routes include the ‘Northwest Passage’ between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans along the northern coast of North America and the ‘Northern Sea Route’ (NSR) which includes all passages along the North coast of the Russian Federation. As a result of the continued melting of Arctic sea ice a new ‘Central Arctic Ocean Route’ may soon become an option alone or in combination with elements of the Northwest Passage or the NSR.

2014.04.04 - Legal aspects of Arctic shipping

At present most Arctic shipping is ‘intra-Arctic’, comprising summer operations in the Canadian Arctic and around Greenland and year round operations along parts of the NSR. There have been only a handful of trans-Arctic voyages in summer along the Northwest Passage and the NSR since 2000 mostly for science and tourism.

Nevertheless, as noted in the European Commission’s 2008 Arctic Communication, the melting sea ice is progressively opening opportunities for navigation through Arctic waters which could considerably shorten trips from Europe to the Pacific with ensuing environmental and economic benefits. The successful navigation of the NSR by two German owned cargo vessels, the MV Beluga Fraternity and the MV Beluga Foresight in September 2009 has generated considerable interest in the use of this route for commercial shipping, not least because further passages are already planned for summer 2010.

Other potential drivers for increased Arctic shipping activity include the development of hydrocarbon extraction activities in Arctic waters and growth in Arctic cruise ship tourism.

For a range of reasons, therefore, including the fact that EU Member States collectively own the world’s largest merchant fleet, the EU has a number of significant interests in Arctic shipping. On 2010 the EC released a study on the legal aspect of Arctic shipping. The main purpose of the EC study was to examine the international legal regime that applies to the Arctic marine area in terms of shipping and related activities. The Study:

  • provides an overview of the international law of the sea, its main features and maritime zones in the context of the Arctic marine area;
  • discusses the international legal regime for the regulation of marine shipping;
  • analyzes the national laws and regulations of the coastal Arctic States (Canada, Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States of America);
  • draws conclusions and examines options for multilateral reform and consultation.

The EC study can be found by clicking HERE.

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