International Maritime Organization - FAQs

What is the International Maritime Organization (IMO)?

The IMO is an established United Nations agency that sets standards and adopts regulations that apply to all vessels that operate internationally. The IMO is based in London and includes representatives from 171 major maritime nations including the United States. Since its inception in 1948, the IMO’s most important objectives and accomplishments have been to improve vessel safety and to prevent marine pollution.

What is the history of the IMO?

Historically, maritime shipping has been recognized as an international business governed by international treaties and agreements. By the 1930s, the international maritime community had already adopted a number of international agreements on marine safety. Many leading maritime nations, however, believed that there was a need for a more permanent body to develop and oversee implementation of uniform rules and regulations governing the shipping industry.

With these goals in mind, a conference held by the United Nations in 1948 adopted a convention calling for establishment of the first ever international body devoted exclusively to maritime matters — the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Since its inception, the IMO’s most important objectives have been safety and the prevention of marine pollution.

What is the Role of CLIA at the IMO?

The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) serves as a consultative non-governmental organization to the IMO. For the past several years, CLIA and its member cruise lines have actively participated in the nine IMO committee and subcommittees which develop maritime safety and environmental protection regulations. Industry representatives from numerous member companies have participated in the development of international shipping policies.

How Does the IMO Work?

The IMO process is very similar to the United States legislative process. Work is accomplished through specialized committees and sub-committees comprised of representatives from Member States including the United States. These committees carry out their work with the assistance of the IMO support staff - the professional men and women who carryout the administrative and support functions of the organization, shipping industry associations, classification society representatives, and other interested parties. All of these organizations work together to examine important maritime issues and to set international shipping regulations, that when ratified, apply to all commercial vessels operating worldwide.

One of the leading committees of the IMO that carries out the organization’s technical work is the Maritime Safety Committee. This committee has a number of subcommittees which deal with a wide variety of maritime safety issues. These subcommittees include: Safety of Navigation; Ship Design and Equipment; Standards of Training and Watchkeeping; Fire Protection; Stability and Load Lines; Communication and Search and Rescue; and Flag State Implementation.

The governing body of the London-based IMO is the Assembly. The Assembly consists of all Member States and is responsible for approving the work programs, voting the budget and determining the IMO's financial arrangements. The Council, elected by the Assembly and comprised of 32 Member Governments, is responsible under the Assembly for supervising the work of the organization including the appointment of the IMO Secretary General.

The IMO has become a vibrant organization responsible for the development of major shipping initiatives. Since its inception in 1948, the IMO’s most important objectives have been improving vessel safety and the prevention of marine pollution. It is recognized as an efficient and successful international body responsible for the development of treaties and conventions governing every aspect of maritime operations. As a result, IMO meetings are attended by maritime experts from around the world.

What Does the IMO Do?

The IMO implements major conventions that regulates all aspects of commercial vessel safety design, crewing, and operation. According to the IMO, the purposes of the Organization, as summarized by Article 1(a) of the Convention, are "to provide machinery for cooperation among Governments in the field of governmental regulation and practices relating to technical matters of all kinds affecting shipping engaged in international trade; to encourage and facilitate the general adoption of the highest practicable standards in matters concerning maritime safety, efficiency of navigation and prevention and control of marine pollution from ships". The Organization is also empowered to deal with administrative and legal matters related to these purposes.

Through the participation of member nations, IMO has developed an extensive international regulatory framework. To achieve its objectives, the IMO promotes the adoption of conventions (or "treaties") through a formal committee process. These committees examine current maritime issues and make recommendations for changes or improvements to Convention regulations. Generally, a committee or subcommittee presents these recommendations to the assembly for adoption. Once a convention or amendment is adopted by the IMO, each member nation is required to present the convention to its member government for ratification. For example, the United States as a signatory to the SOLAS Convention was required to seek treaty ratification from the U.S. Congress. Countries that ratify a convention must implement its requirements. This is significant because it requires all vessels flagged in that country to comply with the established international regulations.

What is the role of the U.S. Coast Guard at IMO?

The U.S. Coast Guard is the United States representative to the IMO for a number of committees and subcommittees. As such, they are responsible for presenting the U.S. position on various maritime safety matters for consideration by the IMO committees and subcommittees. The Coast Guard is considered one of the leading experts on maritime safety and has been responsible for the implementation of numerous IMO Conventions, including the recently adopted fire safety amendments to SOLAS, MARPOL Convention, STCW and ISM Code.

What are the IMO requirements for vessel safety?

Appropriately, the issue of maritime safety has long been the focus of deliberations at the IMO. The major convention dealing with maritime safety is the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS 1974). The SOLAS Convention addresses a wide range of measures to enhance vessel safety including: standards for ship design and construction; stability; fire protection, lifesaving, communications, navigation, safety management and certification.

Recent SOLAS amendments enacted in 1992 called for comprehensive fire safety improvements on all passenger vessels. These amendments, which apply to both new and existing passenger vessels, require vessels to upgrade fire protection and lifesaving equipment, and install low-level lighting, smoke detectors and automatic sprinklers. What are the IMO requirements for crew training? The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping, the STCW Convention, and its Amendments - sets minimum standards for the training and certification of crew members onboard all vessels engaged in international voyages. In 1995, the international shipping industry adopted sweeping amendments to the STCW Convention. These changes establish requirements for basic safety training for all crew members, and advanced training requirements for crew members with assigned safety or pollution prevention duties. The STCW amendments also specify minimum standards for crew competence and set criteria for evaluation of crew training by the flag administration. In addition, the STCW amendments provide for IMO oversight of flag state implementation requirements that went into effect on February 1, 1997.

What are the IMO requirements for the prevention of pollution?

The MARPOL Convention - The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) sets strict regulatory guidelines for the protection of the marine environment. Regulations covering the various sources of ship-generated pollution are contained in five annexes of the Convention. The annexes that govern cruise industry operations set standards to prevent pollution by oil, garbage and waste. MARPOL and its annexes have been widely adopted by the maritime nations. All CLIA member lines have embraced the principles set forth in this international Convention and have comprehensive environmental programs in place, which deal with onboard procedures and practices to eliminate ship-generated pollution. The cruise industry has been very proactive in its effort to maintain the beauty and pristine condition of the waters on which we are privileged to operate.

What are the IMO requirements for Shipboard and Shoreside Safety Management?

The ISM Code - The recently enacted International Safety Management (ISM) code focuses on the important role which onboard crew management and shoreside management plays in maritime safety. In order to obtain ISM Code certification, cruise lines were required to establish a comprehensive safety management system that was reviewed and certified by maritime experts from the flag administration. The ISM code requires both ship board and shoreside cruise line management to carefully document standards of practice relating to safety and environmental operations. These standards of practice will be subject to an ongoing internal and external audit and review by maritime experts familiar with vessel safety and required procedures.

Where can I find a list of IMO Conventions?

A full list of IMO Conventions is available on the IMO Website.

What is a flag administration?

A flag administration is a regulatory agency or group of maritime experts which oversee the operational procedures, practices and conformity to laws of commercial vessels which are registered in that country. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard, a branch of the Department of Transportation, oversees the operations of vessels that operate under the U.S. registry. All major maritime nations have an established organization of maritime experts who are responsible for the oversight of their commercial vessels.

What are the major vessel registries in the world?

According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Maritime Administration, the top two vessel registries in the world are Panama and Liberia.Both the Panamanian and Liberian registries were established by the United States government in the 1940’s and the 1950’s. These maritime registries established a maritime safety code modeled on the U.S. system.

Both registries have large administrations consisting of U.S. and international maritime experts familiar with commercial cargo and passenger vessel operations. In 1998, over 6,000 vessels were registered in these countries, 90 of which were passenger cruise vessels.

Over 90% of the vessels that call on U.S. ports fly an international flag. The reason for this is that shipping is an international business and vessels call on ports around the world. There is a uniform set of standards adopted by IMO that applys to all vessels carrying cargo, products and passengers in international commerce. The MARAD Quarterly Report which details these statistics can be found at

What does United States maritime policy require for vessels engaged in international commerce?

United States maritime policy specifies both vessel construction and ownership requirements for vessels under the U.S. registry operating from one U.S. port to another. U.S. flag vessels engaged in coastwise trade must be built in a U.S. shipyard and must be at least 75% owned, crewed and operated by U.S. citizens. This policy reserves U.S. coastal voyages (i.e. vessels which operate from one U.S. port to another) to U.S. registered vessels which meet the above criteria.

According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Maritime Administration and the U.S. General Accounting office, the number of vessels that operate under the U.S. registry has declined significantly over the last 40 years. More information on this subject can be found at the United States Department of Transportation and their Bureau of Transportation Statistics.