Just thinking about reconciling the different interests of shipping associations might seem an impossible task, but the organizations concerned have never given up, have not stopped trying and they will not rest until they achieve a workable solution.

Shipping has not and will not be deterred in trying to persuade governments to listen to them because it is crucial for the industry’s health and success.  Thus, it is in the best interests of the industry representatives to resolve and decide how the industry can speak effectively, and how it can best influence the regulators.

The Alphabet Soup

As much as one talks about the need for shipping to speak with a single voice, in reality, one must acknowledge that shipping comprises several distinct albeit overlapping sectors, which all have a need for their respective voices to be heard, and articulated through numerous specialist associations.   This is the so-called ‘alphabet soup’.

Shipping Representation is Necessarily Complex

In view of the complexity of our industry, the expression ‘alphabet soup’ is perhaps unfairly derisive.  In the aviation sector, for example, there are actually no more than about 30 major international airlines that collectively make up the board of their principal international trade association – IATA.   In shipping, however, there are several thousands of internationally trading companies whose operations and ownership structures are far more varied, and hence there are many associations that represent them.

Whether one agrees or not, representation of shipping industry viewpoints is necessarily complex.  As well as being a global industry, representation is complicated by the fact that, unlike airlines, in most countries shipping lacks a significant political constituency.  In other words, there are few votes to be had by politicians in supporting shipping, an industry which for the most part has little direct contact with the public at large, nor – with a few exceptions – companies with high profile brands that strike a chord with politicians and policymakers.

The Round Table, and Other Ship Operator Associations

For the purposes of this paper, the focus will be primarily on those bodies that represent shipowners and operators.  In particular, it must be emphasized that there is very good co-operation between the Round Table of international shipping associations, and there are also close relations being enjoyed with a large number of other international bodies representing important sections of the industry.

Fundamental Goals of Regulation of Shipping

One is entitled to ask, how does the industry seek to influence governments in their treatment of shipping so as to deliver international rules that are required, and also at the risk of stating the obvious, why does shipping need to influence governments, and why indeed should governments listen?

On the fundamental goals of the regulation of shipping, there is little disagreement between industry and governments.  However, there might be agreement on the principles, but there is not always agreement on how these should be achieved.

The industry is firmly committed to a system of international regulation, but there has to be a level playing field that ensures that high and consistent standards are applied to ships of all flags wherever they may trade in the world.  The correct places to establish these regulations are at the UN bodies set up for this purpose, in particular IMO.

Governments though, however, committed they may be to the principle of international maritime rules, they will always have national objectives and be subject to political pressures at home, which,  can become particularly acute after a serious oil spill or some other unanticipated event connected with shipping which affects shipping’s image.

Besides an accident or an unanticipated event, however, the biggest drawback, the biggest enemy to the improvement of the name and the image of shipping, as surprising as it might seem, is that the industry is so professional and so unbelievably efficient, that it is never in the news, for doing a good job.  The only time shipping is in the news is when there is an accident.

The shipping industry carries the world’s trade without a hitch delivering the goods that people need, safely and on time.  Some 60,000 ocean-going vessels cover 500 billion ton-miles a day, every day, 365 days a year.  So, one should put that into perspective.  There are accidents, there are incidents, but they are a tiny fraction in relation to the number of ships or the enormity of world trade.  That does not mean that the industry is complacent.  They have not stopped and they will not stop their efforts for continuous improvement of their standards.

Even where it is found that the government and the industry’s aims are essentially aligned, it is vital that the industry get governments to listen to them on how best to achieve these common aims in practical terms.  On issues where they disagree with the industry, it is all the more important that they at least understand the implications of what they are about to decide.

This means that as well as seeking to influence governments on the ‘big’ political issues, such as piracy or CO2 emissions – the industry needs to be constantly engaged on a whole range of routine yet very complex technical matters, which if implemented without due attention to the practical details could cause a great disruption to the operations of those companies affected.

For that to happen, governments must not only listen to the industry but most importantly they must seek to engage with them from day one, at the thinking stage.

Examples of Current ‘Routine’ Issues

One could easily fill several pages with subjects on which the industry associations are presently engaged in.  These associations take an interest in virtually any operational or legal development that may impact the interests of any sector and any trade.

Much of this work, important though it is, may largely go unnoticed by most people, given that success on the industry’s associations part is to enable ships to continue to operate unhindered by unworkable regulation.  If they fail, that will certainly be noticed!   What they do, involves active and committed participation throughout virtually every IMO technical committee, and at many other bodies besides.

International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in Session

It is important to understand the degree of influence that the industry enjoys at bodies such as IMO, and the respect which it is afforded by governments.  It is no small thing and it is a very impressive relationship that has actually taken several decades to establish, complemented over the years by shipping’s commitment to the promotion of best practice with regard to safety and environmental protection.

Shipping is very fortunate to have IMO as its global regulator. IMO is a model of efficiency and generally produces very workable regulations, within a clearly defined timetable, and in a way from which other international regulatory agencies could learn.

However, IMO is inter-governmental – it is not supranational.  Even in an industry that benefits from a high degree of international co-operation, shipping’s international regulatory framework is still ultimately agreed upon and enforced by national governments.

Lessons for the Future 

The whole focus of governments in all their activities seems to be to increase the levels of regulation for the industry.  Shipping, therefore, needs professional and well-funded trade associations, to maintain a continuous dialogue with governments.  Collectively shipping spends far less on representation than most other major industries of comparable size and turnover.   Sometimes it seems that shipowners dislike having to pay for the bodies which represent them.  However, they would realise quickly the negative consequences if these shipping associations were not there to represent their interests.

Secondly, the politics of the regulation of shipping are getting more complex. It is not enough just to have the ear of transport ministries, and delegations to IMO meetings.  Many issues which impact on shipping have a wider political dimension, and nowhere is this clearer than in the discussions on CO2 emissions.   Shipping also has to take account of the increasing influence of governments such as China, India, and other emerging economies.  IMO is no longer a club for just the traditional maritime nations.  Over half the world’s tonnage is owned in Asia.


There is certainly no shortage of challenges ahead, and industry associations need the resources to meet them.  When shipping emerges from the economic downturn, companies will still be under pressure, and the funding of trade associations, particularly at national level, might not seem to be a major priority compared with immediate survival.

However, this is still a world of nation-states and national interests.  Co-ordination amongst the various international trade associations, including the Round Table organizations, is most important.  While different organizations may wish to give more emphasis to particular viewpoints and nuances, it is vital that shipping associations are not seen by policymakers to contradict each other in public.  They must and should work more efficiently together.