An enforcement program to ensure the safety of the international vessel fleet in domestic waters

What is Port State Control?

There are generally two major enforcement systems aimed at ensuring commercial vessel compliance with applicable regulations, laws and conventions. These systems are Flag State Control and Port State Control. Oversight of vessels is logically first achieved through Flag State Control. This is where the government of the flag under which the vessel operates exercises control over the vessel to ensure compliance. This control can extend to anywhere in the world in which the vessel operates.

When the vessels operate internationally, an additional control in the form of Port State Control is added. Port State Control is where the government of the foreign port in which the vessel is operating exercises control over the vessel to ensure compliance with applicable domestic and international requirements to ensure safety of the port, environment and personnel. For vessels operating under a foreign flag entering a U.S. port, Port State Control becomes the primary means of marine safety enforcement.

Why Port State Control?

International efforts to improve the safety of ships began as early as 1914 after the sinking of the TITANIC with a tremendous loss of life. However, there were generally weak mechanisms to allow a host country to exercise control over a foreign flag vessel in their port. The vessel’s flag state and owner had primary responsibility for vessel safety.

As the international fleet of vessels grew older, and maintenance efforts failed to keep up, an alarming number of vessels were lost, often with loss of crew as well. Recognition of the failure of some Flag States to properly exercise control led to an international emphasis on Port State Control.

More about the program

In 1978 eight North Sea States formed the Hague Memorandum of Understanding to concentrate on foreign ship standards. The Paris Memorandum of Understanding in 1982 superseded it and added six more countries. Canada was added in 1994. The U.S., Japan, Russian Federation and Croatia, served as participating maritime authorities within the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

Ultimately, the goal of the Port State Control program is to eliminate substandard ships from the waters of participating countries. IMO defined substandard in 1975 as a ship with "hull, machinery, or equipment, such as for lifesaving, radio and fire-fighting…below the standards required by the relevant conventions". The Port State, upon identifying a substandard vessel was authorized to detain the vessel until corrections to eliminate hazard to the port and return to a seaworthy condition were achieved. In 1994, IMO approved an amendment to the Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea to authorize port state control of vessel operational requirements.

The US Coast Guard recognized this initiative as a means to raise the safety bar for the world’s fleet, especially important given the dominance of foreign flag vessels calling on U.S. ports, and responded by launching one of the world’s most stringent Port State Control programs in 1994. A risk based boarding matrix was developed based on identification of vessels, owners, flags and classification societies with a history of poor performance. Vessels identified as higher risk were boarded with greater frequency and had greater operational controls imposed. The initial years of the program saw a high level of vessel detentions. As the news spread of the intolerance for poor maintenance practices and the costly delays in effecting corrections in port, maintenance efforts increased or substandard vessel no longer called and detentions subsequently decreased.

Recent Statistics

U. S. Detentions

1995   1996   1997   1998   1999   2000   2001

514     476     547     373     257     193      173

Other Sources of Information

The Thirteenth Coast Guard District Public Affairs Office (dep) created this page on December 27, 1998 and last modified it June 26, 2002. This page may be reproduced locally. If any changes are needed please notify D13 (dep) at 206.220.7237. More Coast Guard information can be accessed at http://www.uscg.mil and a complete listing of these fact sheets can be found at http://www.uscg.mil/d13.