World fleet and flags under the spotlight

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 12 January 2018


Any breakdown of the world fleet into ship type, ownership or any other parameter can only ever be a snapshot because it changes constantly as ships are scrapped, newbuildings delivered and vessels change hands all the time.

Another factor that makes comparisons between different variants of the fleet make-up so difficult is which ships and craft types are included. In term of numbers, the small working craft seen in every port, bunker tankers, tugs, along with all kinds of research ships, dredgers and similar make up almost half of all ships accounting for around 60,000 vessels and when fishing vessels are added in then the numbers change again.

Of course all of these types of vessels are an important part of the market for shipbuilders, equipment makers and service providers so they should not be discounted. However, determining their operational status can be difficult and if they are engaged in purely domestic trade, then they might not come under the auspices of SOLAS or other international conventions and there may not be regulation on crew qualifications.

The following description of the world fleet includes cargo ships of all types both dry and wet, cruise and ferries and offshore vessels. References will be made to other ship types but those will not be included when calculating percentages or total deadweight tonnages. Also excluded will be vessels solely engaged on inland waterway trades (except the Great Lakes) and naval ships.

The current in-service fleet as described above comprises a grand total of 63,902 vessels after those known or suspected to be headed for scrapping are removed. The total deadweight of the fleet is 1,908,259,894 tonnes. In addition, there are a further 3,743 ships totalling 214,392,493dwt on order or under construction.

Bulkers are biggest part of fleet

In terms of ship numbers, the most numerous type are general cargo ships but the 15,795 total for this category does include various sub-categories such as heavy lift vessels, semi-submersibles, livestock carriers and more. Not included in that figure are the 11,592 bulkers of all sizes. The combined deadweight of the bulk fleet – which ranges from the small mini bulkers through to 400,000dwt plus ore carriers – is 800,587,751 tonnes.

Crude and product tankers together make up the next largest segment of the cargo fleet with 7,183 vessels for 487,640,334 deadweight tonnes. Followed by container ships and chemical tankers which both have fleets in excess of 5,000 vessels.

Offshore vessels of all description and covering both the oil and gas and offshore wind sectors, amount to 9,683 vessels of which 339 are FPSOs, FSRUs and similar types of storage and production vessels. Given the recent problems of the offshore sector caused by low oil prices, it is surprising to note that in the newbuilding arena, offshore vessels are the second most numerous type after bulk carriers.

Panama on top of the pile

When it comes to the flagging of the in-service fleet, there is no doubt that the largest fleets are sailing under open registries. Panama remains the largest with over 7,100 vessels totalling a massive 335.5m deadweight tonnes. While many would expect the Marshall Islands or Liberia to follow in second position, that position is actually claimed by Hong Kong with 245.9mn tonnes. The Marshall Islands comes in in third place with 238mn tonnes followed by Liberia with just short of 226mn tonnes.

Behind these four countries only Singapore (127.2mn tonnes) and Malta (109.4mn tonnes) achieve three figures and these are trailed by Bahamas (77mn), Greece (72mn) and China (71.6mn). Then there is a large gap to Japan (37mn|) and Cyprus (34.7mn). In all just over 20 national flags exceed 10mn tonnes and Germany falls just a touch under this figure at 9.8mn tonnes.

The beneficial ownership of vessels is sometimes not easy to discern. So while it is relatively easy to describe the distribution of the fleet by way of flag and even operational control, doing so by other means can be tricky. Open registries add to the difficulty because it is so easy for an owner to conceal their true identity.

In efforts to attract vessels away from open registers, many European nations have established second registers that permit a greater degree of flexibility in choice of crews and other aspects of management. It is doubtful if the tonnages under some flags such as Denmark (19.4mn tonnes), Portugal (20mn tonnes) and Norway (21,1mn tonnes) would have reached the levels they have if no second register existed.

Numbers are not everything

When it comes to ship numbers under different flags, the positions of the leading nations do change somewhat. Panama remains in top spot with 7,125 ships under its flag. The Marshall Islands does claim second place here with 3365 ships but Indonesia climbs to third place with 3315 ships. The positions of second and third would be reversed if the vessel types excluded from the statistics were included.

The Marshall Islands does count some of the miscellaneous vessels types under its flag, but Indonesia can count on over 5,100 small vessels without counting fishing ships making it possibly the nation with the largest number of vessels under its flag. Other flags with a vessel count above 2,000 include Malta, Russia, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Japan.

While every vessel must be flying under a flag of some sort, ships which have been laid-up for long periods and taken off a registry and those in the process of sale – especially for scrapping – may temporarily be considered stateless. So too are some of the newbuildings planned or under construction; while the owner may have decided which flag the ship will sail under this intention is not always made know. In some cases, the original instigator of a newbuilding project may have ceased trading, but the yard will continue work in the hope of finding a new buyer.

Given the overcapacity in most sectors of the world fleet it is difficult to understand why some owners continue to commission new vessels, but they do and some may have good reasons for doing so. That can have an adverse effect on other owners who are taking a more restrained approach to new ordering.

The increases in new container ships and bulkers that will occur this year will likely dampen the air of optimism that was apparent as 2017 drew to a close. In the container sector in particular, several of the largest ships afloat are due for delivery in 2018 but some analysts are saying that a further downturn in trade may follow the Chinese New Year slowdown that occurs in February.

For bulk carriers, the current order book represents almost 10% of the current fleet capacity but less than 7% of fleet numbers. That said, this sector is one where several older vessels are expected to be scrapped once they reach the point where they must install a ballast treatment system. Doubtless some owners will be looking to offload some ships in order to raise the finance needed to install systems on the remainder of their fleet. Some may also be hoping to raise funds to cover extra costs when the 2020 sulphur cap in fuels kicks in. Another factor that might be in effect is owners attempting to avoid ordering ships after 2020 when if they did, the ships would need to meet the next EEDI phase.

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