Shipping industry regulation

How the shipping industry is regulated and how to keep up-to-date when regulations change or new regulations are introduced.


The shipping industry is regulated by various UN agencies - primarily the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which develops and maintains the framework of global maritime safety regulations. Maritime regulations also originate from EU legislation and UK legislation.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) is responsible for implementing the government’s maritime safety policy in the UK on behalf of the Department for Transport (DfT) as one of its executive agencies. The MCA works closely with national and international partners in the shipping industry to promote the safe construction, operation and navigation of ships.

This guide covers how the industry is regulated, the different sources of maritime regulations and how you can keep up-to-date when regulations change or new regulations are introduced.

Sources of maritime regulations

Regulations which govern the maritime industry come from:

  • UK legislation
  • EU legislation
  • agreements, resolutions and conventions made by various UN agencies, including the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and International Labour Organization (ILO)

UK legislation

UK legislation is mainly made up of Acts of Parliament and statutory instruments. Acts of Parliament are the highest level of law. Acts often grant power to government ministers to create more detailed regulations called Statutory Instruments (SIs). Most UK legislation is in the form of SIs.

Many maritime SIs have supporting documentation in the form of Marine notices (M-notices) and codes of practice.

Find a directory of UK legislation on the website.

EU legislation

As a member state of the EU, the UK is subject to EU legislation. EU legislation comes in the form of:

  • regulations
  • directives
  • decisions

Regulations are enforceable as law within the UK as soon as they are passed in the EU and published in the European Journal. By comparison, directives and decisions must be transposed (transferred) into UK national law before they come into force.

You can read an overview of EU Maritime Policy on the European Commission website.

The EUR-Lex website is the official source of all EU treaties, legislation (proposed, upcoming and in force) and case-law. You can find EU legislation on the EUR-Lex website.


The IMO is the UN agency that specialises in regulating the international shipping industry. It aims to provide a regulatory framework covering safety, environmental concerns, legal matters, technical co-operation, maritime security and the efficiency of shipping. The IMO has its headquarters in the UK.

How it works: The IMO carries out its work in a series of meetings attended by member states. These meetings produce large amounts of documentation, such as circulars and resolutions, which IMO member states - including the UK - are encouraged to accept and implement. Find out about the work and responsibilities of the IMO on their website.

You can also find IMO circulars on the IMO website and read IMO resolutions on their website.


The ILO is a UN organisation that:

  • promotes dialogue between employers and workforces worldwide
  • campaigns for fair and decent working conditions for employees
  • encourages employment opportunities 

Maritime Labour Convention

The ILO’s MLC 2006 provides comprehensive rights and protection at work for seafarers all over the world. The MLC consolidated the existing 65 international labour standards.

Find out about the MLC on the ILO website.

You can also read information about the MLC on the MCA website.

New, upcoming and changing maritime regulations

The majority of UK maritime SIs are supported by Marine notices (referred to as M-notices) and codes of practice. These documents expand on the technical detail of the shipping and fishing legislation they support. They may be mandatory or non-mandatory, depending on whether they are given force of law by an SI.

M-notices inform the shipping and fishing industries of important safety, pollution prevention and other maritime information. M-notices are issued by the MCA. There are also codes of practice that provide practical guidance on how to comply with the legislation.

There are 3 types of M-notice:

  • Merchant Shipping Notices (MSNs) provide mandatory guidance on legislation, and must be complied with when enforced by an SI
  • Marine Guidance Notes (MGNs) provide guidance on the interpretation of the law, recommendations on best practice and general safety advice
  • Marine Information Notes (MINs) are intended for a specific audience - eg equipment manufacturers - or give time-limited information - such as timetables for MCA examinations - and expire after a certain date (usually no more than 12 months after publication)

M-notices also have suffixes to indicate whether the documents relate to:

  • merchant ships (M)
  • fishing vessels (F)
  • merchant ships and fishing vessels (M+F)


The MCA carries out public consultations on maritime issues including new legislation, proposed changes to existing legislation and guidance.

You can find details of past and present consultations on GOV.UK.

Availability of M-notices

You can find the latest MSNs, MGNs and MINs to download for free on GOV.UK.

Find contact details for your local MCA office on the MCA website.

The MCA provides a free electronic subscription service for M-notices. If you subscribe to this service, you will be notified by email as new documents are published and provided with links to each item.

To subscribe, you can email the EC Group at with ‘Subscribe’ in the subject heading. To unsubscribe, you can email them at the same address with ‘Unsubscribe’ in the subject heading.

Further information

UK legislation on the website

EU Maritime Policy overview on the European Commission website

EU legislation on the EUR-Lex website

Maritime Labour Convention information on the MCA website

Merchant Shipping Notices (MSNs), Marine Guidance Notes (MGNs) and Marine Information Notes (MINs) - online shop on the Stationery Office website

MSNs, MGNs and MINs directory on the MCA website

MCA office contact details on the MCA website

IMO work and services information on the IMO website

MLC information on the ILO website

MCA consultations information on the MCA website

Published 9 October 2012