Interview with Arctic Council Observer: International Maritime Organization

11 March 2020
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has had Observer status in the Arctic Council since 2019. As an Observer, IMO can contribute to the Arctic Council through meeting attendance, providing scientific expertise to Working Groups, project proposals and financial contribution (not to exceed financing from Arctic States, unless otherwise decided by the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Officials) and statements.

We spoke with Heike Deggim, Director of IMO’s Maritime Safety Division about IMO’s interest in the Arctic region, how it engages with the Arctic Council and current projects it is working on.

What pressing issues in the Arctic are of interest to the IMO?

IMO’s remit as the global regulatory body for all aspects of shipping is to ensure shipping is safe, secure and sustainable. Consequently, IMO is engaged in a range of issues related to shipping in the Arctic, in particular, search and rescue, pollution response, maritime safety and protection of the marine and atmospheric environment. We want to ensure that shipping operations in the Arctic are safe; and that the regulatory framework helps to protect the lives of crews and passengers – and minimizes the impact of shipping activity on the fragile polar environment.

IMO’s Polar Code provides mandatory requirements for ships operating in the harsh environment of the polar regions. It ensures additional protection, on top of existing mandatory rules, for ship design, construction, equipment, operational, training, search and rescue and environmental protection matters. But we recognize that more can be done. IMO is currently developing safety recommendations for ships not covered by the Polar Code (these include, e.g. pleasure yachts, fishing vessels and small cargo ships), while IMO Member States have been invited, through an IMO Assembly Resolution adopted in December of last year, to voluntarily implement safety measures prescribed in the Polar Code on those ships.

We are also interested in broader maritime issues requiring cooperation and collaboration among many different stakeholders, such as the need for increased coverage in the region of navigational and hydrographic charts, search and rescue facilities, satellite and radio communications, port reception facilities (for receiving operational discharges) and icebreaker support.

Of course, IMO also has a prime interest in the worldwide efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from shipping on a global basis and thereby combat climate change. IMO has adopted an initial strategy on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from shipping, with a specific linkage to the Paris Agreement, and clear levels of ambition – including an at least 50 percent cut in emissions from the sector by 2050. At the same time, we are supporting this regulatory effort with a number of practical initiatives and projects designed to stimulate and support the development of new technologies and better operational practices, while at the same time, building capacity and expertise, especially in developing countries.

IMO Member States are also actively engaged in addressing black carbon emissions from ships in the Arctic and are working on extending the ban on carrying heavy fuel oil – which currently applies in Antarctic waters only – to the Arctic, too. Another very important initiative is the combat of marine litter and microplastics. We are one of the partners in the United Nations Environment Program-led Global Partnership for Marine Litter, co-leading efforts to address sea-based sources of marine litter together with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

How do you work with the Arctic Council to tackle pressing issues in the Arctic?

Following a long period of cooperation on an informal basis at the technical level, IMO was accredited with Observer status by the Arctic Council in 2019. This gives us the opportunity to attend Arctic Council meetings, participate in its Working Groups and keep the Council informed of the outcome of IMO’s ongoing work on various aspects of polar shipping.

We are building on previous collaborations, such as the "Guide on Oil Spill Response in Ice and Snow Conditions", approved by IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee in 2016, which was developed in coordination with the Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) Working Group. We are also closely cooperating with the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Arctic Council Working Group. A recent example is the promotion of the Arctic Shipping Best Practice Information Forum’s public web portal – which assists in the effective implementation of the IMO Polar Code – to all IMO Member States and international organizations in consultative status with IMO, following a submission from the eight Arctic States about the portal to the 101st session of IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) in June of last year. The fourth annual meeting of the Forum will take place at IMO Headquarters from 11 to 12 May 2020 immediately before the next session of the Committee and will afford IMO Member States the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the work of the Arctic Council.

We also participated in an Arctic Council side event at the Our Ocean Conference in Oslo in October 2019 and an IMO expert is involved in the development of a Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter in the Arctic (ML-RAP).

We look forward to further work with the Arctic Council on search and rescue, pollution response and maritime safety, as well as on the protection of the marine environment. I am sure there will be many opportunities to intensify our collaboration in the coming years.

What are Arctic Council initiatives are you currently working on?

In IMO, work on polar shipping issues is continuing following the entry into force of the Polar Code. Over the last two years, we have developed the following specifications for ships’ equipment:

  • Guidance for navigation and communication equipment intended for use on ships operating in polar waters
  • Guidelines on life-saving appliances and arrangements for ships operating in polar waters

Currently the work concentrates on providing guidance for ships operating in polar waters to which the Polar Code does not apply, mainly fishing vessels, pleasure yachts and small cargo ships. IMO’s Sub-Committee on Ship Design and Equipment (SDC), which met for its seventh session in February of this year, just completed the following two instruments, which will now go to the Maritime Safety Committee for approval and subsequent dissemination:

  • Guidelines for pleasure yachts of 300 gross tonnage and above not engaged in trade operating in polar waters
  • Guidelines for fishing vessels of 24 m in length and over operating in polar waters

With Arctic shipping routes, such as the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage, opening up and gaining in importance, I am sure there will be ample work for us in the coming years to ensure shipping in the polar areas remains safe and in compliance with international requirements.

To learn more about the role of Observers and the criteria for admission, click here. You can learn more about the past and ongoing work of Arctic Council Observers through their activity reports and reviews.