Shipping and ports


The activities of the shipping and port sector can be broken down by: i) the origin/destination of the ships’ journey, ii) the purpose of traffic as well as iii) the size of ports. In this sector fiche, there will be an emphasis on cargo and passenger traffic types as well as on short sea shipping. However, service traffic and the European leg of deep sea shipping will be considered, too. Leisure boats and fishing activities also create traffic. These forms of navigation are not part of this sector fiche, but information can be found in the coastal and maritime tourism and fishing fiches.

Basic facts

  • Gross value added: € 570 billion. EU and Norway in 2015[1]
  • State of the sector: Mature and growing[2]
  • Presence across sea basins: Dispersed throughout all sea basins[3]
  • Land-sea interaction occurs through ports and hinterland connections
  • Peak in cargo demand in winter[4]
  • Interaction with other uses involves conflicts especially with uses requiring fixed installations[5]

Frequently asked questions [25]

Specific FAQs regarding this sector can be found at the bottom of the page. The following questions provide overall information on current spatial needs and anticipated future developments.

What are the present spatial needs of the Shipping and Ports sector?

Cargo and passenger transport follows a linear structure[6]. This means that they seek to take the direct route between two ports. Detours are possible, but costly, due to higher fuel expenses as well as labour costs[7].

Sufficient space must be secured for overtaking other ships as well as emergency manoeuvres[8]. This means that incompatible uses (especially offshore installations) should be sufficiently far away from the heavier trafficked areas. In addition, ships can only sail in areas which are sufficiently deep for their draught[9].

When planning for shipping in MSP, it must be ensured that sea traffic can operate safely also under adverse conditions. Heavy weather poses risks in the sense that it limits visibility. Furthermore, ships may need to deviate from the optimal course or even seek refuge in anchorage areas[10].

Which anticipated future developments of the industry are relevant to MSP?

Increasing freight volumes generally mean an increase in ship traffic[11] and a resulting claim for more sea space. It is important to assess how an increase in freight volumes would play out in a particular geographic context.

Vessel size is predicted to increase[12]. Bigger vessels have a bigger turning circle. If an area is frequently accessed by very large vessels, a wider area should be reserved for shipping in order to ensure safe navigation[13]. Furthermore, water depth in shallow areas (including in ports) limits the accessibility for vessels with a bigger draught. Some ports will adapt their infrastructure to accommodate very large carriers[14].

Short sea shipping is expected to increase, because feeder vessels will distribute the cargo that is brought to hubs by the very large vessels[15]. In addition, short sea shipping is politically supported at the EU level[16]. A spatial implication of more short sea shipping is an increased demand for space along the coastlines.

Port infrastructure: It is important to anticipate which ports will be frequently accessed by what kind of ships in the future in order to determine which routes ships will use. Existing and planned port infrastructure is a decisive factor[17]. Apart from the ability to accommodate very large carriers, the offer of alternative bunkering technology as well as a port’s general service offer may decide about the direction of traffic flows. Some small ports may even decline in importance in the competitive environment.

The spatial implications of autonomous vessels are difficult to foresee. In the trial phase, testbeds will be established that may be closed for conventional ships and other uses. In the foreseeable future, autonomous and manned vessels will coexist. Some experts say that in the beginning, autonomous vessels may require a separate lane. Others argue that autonomous shipping will require less safety distances, because technology will be more reliable than vessels operated by humans[18]. Additional information on autonomous vessel developments can be found at One Sea.

Climate change is expected to result in more extreme weather conditions (including heavier rain and storms)[19]. Ships are obliged to adapt their routes to the weather conditions[20]. In addition, climate change may trigger an opening of the Arctic route during summer, which may alter sea traffic patterns in some areas.[21]

Recommendations for MSP processes in support of the sector

  • To support the shipping sector, MSP should keep free space needed for shipping (rather than limiting shipping activities to designated areas) now and in the future. Furthermore, MSP should make sure that safety zones to incompatible activities are sufficient.
  • MSP processes may instigate a debate about changing shipping routes. However, changing international shipping routes is a lengthy process[22] and existing IMO shipping routes should be considered in MSP processes.
  • Three dimensions need to be taken into account for assessing present spatial claims and estimating future ones: The trajectory, i.e. the coordinates of ships’ movements; Width of the space required (depending on traffic density and vessel size); Water depth in relation to ships’ draught.
  • AIS data a prime source to identify the present spatial needs of shipping. From the data, the requirements of different navigation types (cargo, passenger, service, fishing) can be differentiated [22].
  • Neighbouring states should cooperate in order to ensure a mapping of shipping lanes designated in MSPs across borders [6].

For more information

For more information, please visit the long-version of the sector fiche which includes further detailed information, resources and references. 


[1] Oxford Economics. (2015). The economic value of the EU shipping industry-update.


[2] EUNETMAR (2013). Study on Blue Growth, maritime policy and the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region.

[3] EuroGraphics. (n.d). European Atlas of the Sea [Image].;p=w;b...

[4] Stopford, M. (2009). Maritime economics (3rd ed.). New York,NY: Routledge.

[5] Mehdi, R. & Schröder-Hinrichts, J.-U. (2016). A Theoretical Risk Management Framework for Vessels Operating Near Offshore Wind Farms. MARE-WINT, 359-400.

[6] Gee, K., Kannen, A., & Heinrichs, B., (2011). BaltSeaPlan vision 2030: Towards the sustainable planning of Baltic Sea space.;494/1

[7] Rawson, A. & Rogers, E. (2015). Assessing the impacts to vessel traffic from offshore wind farms in the Thames Estuary. Scientific Journals of the Maritime University of Szczecin, 43(115), 99–107.

[8] The Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment & The Ministry of Economic Affairs (2014). White Paper on offshore wind energy: Partial review of the National Water Plan Holland Coast and area north of the Wadden Islands. The Hague. 

[9] The Nautical Institute. (2013). The shipping industry and maritime spatial planning: A professional approach.

[10] Ibid.

[11] European Commission (2013). European Seaports 2030:Challenges ahead.

[12] OECD (2015). The Impact of Mega-Ships: Case-specific policy analysis.

[13] The Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment & The Ministry of Economic Affairs (2014)

[14] OECD (2015). The Impact of Mega-Ships: Case-specific policy analysis.

[15] European Commission. DG Mobility and Transport (2015). Analysis of recent trends in EU shipping and analysis and policy support to improve the competitiveness of short sea shipping in the EU.

[16] European Commission DG Mobility and Transport. (2011). White Paper on transport: Roadmap to a single European transport area: Towards a competitive and resource efficient transport system.

[17] Beyer, C., Schultz-Zehden, A., Vollmann, T., Cahill, B., Ross, A. & Coornaert, C. (2017). Towards an implementation strategy for the sustainable blue growth agenda for the Baltic sea region.

[18] Meyer, N. (2017) Shipping in the Baltic Sea. Past, present and future developments relevant for Maritime Spatial Planning.

[19] Sarwar, G. M. (2006). Impacts of climate change on maritime industries (Doctoral dissertation, World Maritime University, Malmö, Sweden).

[20] IMO Resolution A.528, 13: Recommendations on weather routing. (17 November 1983).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Fiorini, et al. (2016)

[23]International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities (2017). IALA guideline G1121. Navigational Safety within Marine Spatial Planning

[24]Mehdi R.,2018. -Improving the co-existence of Offshore Energy Installations & Shipping .Report on Work-package 4.4 of the NorthSEE Project.

[25] Spasov Kalinov K, et al., Elaboration of Detailed Study on the Establishment of a New Ship Routing System in Territorial Sea of the Republic of Bulgaria.

Frequently Asked Questions

Traditionally, ships have been had the right to use marine space with very few restrictions. In the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and on the High Seas the principle of freedom of navigation applies. This principle of customary international law has been codified in Article 87.1 of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In the territorial sea, ships have the right to innocent passage (Article 8 UNCLOS). In straits that are used for international navigation, vessels “enjoy the right for transit passage” (Article 38 UNCLOS). However, there are exceptions to the rights to free navigation. According to Articles 56 and 60 UNCLOS, coastal states may construct artificial islands as well as installations and structures in their EEZ and establish safety zones around them, which may not be navigated in.  However, interference with internationally recognised shipping routes (declared by the International Maritime Organization) may not be caused. For MSP this means that designated shipping routes have to be kept free of other incompatible uses, because their use by vessels is recommended or even mandatory. Different types of shipping routes can be found on the IMO’s website.

Shipping routes are a means to improve the safety of navigation, e.g. in congested areas. The responsibility of International Maritime Organization (IMO) for establishing shipping routes is enshrined in International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). Countries intending to set up or change a shipping route in their EEZ (e.g. as a results of an MSP process) or on the high seas have to present a concrete proposal to the IMO’s Sub-Committee on Navigation, Communication and Search and Rescue. This body evaluates the proposal and gives recommendations regarding its adoption. The decision on the adoption of the shipping route is taken by the Maritime Safety Committee, which represents all IMO member states.  In territorial water, shipping routes can be established and changed by the coastal state taking into account the guidance of the IMO (Article 22 UNCLOS). For straits, the responsibility for designating shipping routes lies with the coastal states, but the IMO plays a consultative role. For maritime spatial planners, it is important to note that rerouting of an official shipping routing is a process that takes time. Depending on their location, the IMO needs to be involved directly or indirectly.

The project MARSPLAN has recently presented a proposal for a new vessels traffic system in Bulgaria. A proposal for amending the existing vessel traffic system is developed on the basis of a preliminary outlined concept. The concept provides for fewer unnecessary turn circles and moves the Traffic Separation Scheme away from the coast so as to protect it from pollution in case of oil spills or discharge of other dangerous for the environment loads. Furthermore, the new traffic system should not interfere with recreational diving at shipwrecks. Also, the development of the new system requires its boundaries in the territorial sea to be announced for avoiding complications. In practice, the concept guides the amendment of the existing and the establishment of the new ship routing system, including  traffic separation schemes , bidirectional routes, recommended routes, areas that shall be avoided, areas prohibited for anchoring, etc… The methodology for establishing the new ship routing system is described in the report and this methodology could be easily transferable to other contexts and sea basins. 

Any fixed installations (wind farms, aquaculture, offshore oil and gas) in the vicinity of an area used by ships (regardless whether it is an officially designated shipping route or not) may have adverse effects on shipping activity. Buffer zones have to be established around fixed installations to prevent collisions of vessels with these structures as well as with each other. These zones have to be of sufficient width to allow for safe navigation taking into account the traffic density (including leisure boats and service vessels to the offshore structures) and the dimensions of the large vessels sailing in this area. . The assessment of the risk of major hazards and impacts should be in accordance with IALA guidance on Risk Management and Navigational Safety  within MSP and follow recognised methods for risk assessment e.g. the IALA risk management toolbox or the IMO adopted Formal Safety Assessment methodology (FSA). Furthermore, safety must to be maintained in difficult situations. In heavy weather visibility may be reduced, which increases the risk of collision.  In bad weather or emergency situations, ships may need to deviate from the course or find shelter. In addition, wind farms may cause interference on radar display.

Coastal States are obliged to provide Aids to Navigation in accordance with the volume of traffic and the degree of risk.Risk control measures normally applied include setting safety distances, optimal lighting and marking of structures, remote monitoring of congested traffic areas through VTS or shore-control centres, and even patrol boats around the installation boundaries Further discussion on this subject can be found in the report from the North SEE project “Improving the co-existence of Offshore Energy Installations & Shipping.”

Although the emission of exhaust gases by ships is increasingly being regulated, some emissions do not only contribute to climate change, but can also determine local impacts on coastal areas and related coastal and marine activities (e.g. coastal tourism or recreational activities as sailing). Noise pollution from ships negatively affects marine mammals. In shallow areas, shipping causes damages to the seabed and negatively affects the benthic ecosystem. In case of collision and groundings, the considerable areas may be polluted through oil spills; oil spill risk assessment is certainly one of the most relevant environmental implications of shipping to be taken into account in MSP. In addition, sub-optimal routing increases fuel consumption and, consequently, contributes to climate change. Furthermore, traffic flows may change at the expense of shipping and in favour of other, less environmentally friendly transport modes.

The width of a shipping route has to be determined by a number of factors, including traffic density and size of vessels sailing on this route. There are several approaches for determining the actual width, however, it should encompass the widths of the path foreseen for actual navigation, a safety zone adjacent to this paths (to allow for turn-around) as well as the 500 metres safety zone around installations and structures required by rule 8 of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLLREGS). The safety zone in between the path for navigation and the 500 metres safety zone serves as a buffer in emergency situations. It must be wide enough to allow for a turnaround of a vessel.

Several trends might influence shipping and the established shipping routes in the near future. Most important trends are: usage of larger ships, increase in traffic flows and climate change effects in terms of re-routing.

A first trend is the increase in ship size. During the last 10 years, ships have become larger. For example, in 2000 an average container vessel transported 8,000 TEU, while an average container vessel in 2013 already carried 18,000 TEU. The container in 2000 had an average length of 300m, while in 2013 the ship was on average 400m long. The larger ships require more room for manoeuvring and space for this activity needs to be available. It is expected that in the near future ships will become even larger and therefore require more space. In MSP plans sufficient room for shipping and manoeuvring needs to be considered.

A second trend is the increase in short sea shipping (SSS) services. Although short sea shipping suffered substantial from the economic crisis (2008), volumes are steadily increasing again . It is expected that also in the coming years the tonnes transported by SSS will increase. An increase in the tonnes transported by sea, leads to an increase in the number of ship movements, which in turn leads to busier shipping lanes.

If this trend continues, it might lead to a need for expanding the current ship’s routeing in order to ensure safe maritime shipping. If MSP plans do not sufficiently consider the possibility of expanding shipping lanes, maritime traffic might come in conflict with other functions realised at sea.

A third trend is climate change. In recent years, the weather becomes more extreme (heavier rain and storms), which also affects shipping. According to IMO Resolution A.528(13) weather routeing is important and could even take precedence over regular ship’s routeing. The aim of weather routeing is to ensure that ships are provided with the optimum routes, so that they can avoid bad weather. In order to allow weather routeing, space needs to be available, so that ships can temporarily deviate from the well-known shipping lanes. In case the space needed is already occupied by other maritime functions (e.g. offshore wind or oil & gas) deviating might not be possible. In addition, climate change may trigger an opening of the Arctic route during summer, which may later sea traffic patterns in some areas.

Autonomous shipping is a development that will also have an impact on MSP in the future. 

The first commercial solutions for highly automated ships (enabling vessels to sail autonomously but still requiring human intervention) could be available in 2020 already [1]. In 2030, a smaller number of fully autonomous vessels (mostly feeder, barge and ferries) should operate on special routes in the BSR while the majority of vessels will most probably still be conventional ships or partly autonomous ones. Already today, Norway and Finland both designated test beds for autonomous shipping: the Trondheimsfjord in Norway and the Jaakonmeri Test Area located on the Finnish west coast outside the municipality of Eurajoki in Finland.

MSP could play a crucial role in the implementation of autonomous ships [2]. Today, ship routing systems of the IMO are in place in most of the busy shipping areas of the world. Tomorrow, with the development of fully or partly autonomous ships, MSP could significantly enhance the safety at sea.  Designated corridors, mandatory for autonomous shipping, could be implemented, including reasonable safety distances to other spaces dedicated to e.g. fishery, military operations or deep-sea mining. As a first step, a comprehensive and cross border spatial planning for all near coastal areas could already today enhance safety of navigation as it clearly allocates space to different users. 

Closely related to shipping are the anchorage areas at sea. Anchoring at sea has become more common recently and dedicated anchoring areas to exist throughout Europe. Ships can use the available spots, for instance, when no space in their port of destination is available or, as is common in the oil industry, when the owner wants to speculate on the price of crude oil (on spec).

In order to ensure that anchoring is done in a safe way it is crucial that no cables and pipes are located in the dedicated areas (otherwise ship anchors can damage them). Also as anchoring at sea becomes more popular additional space for anchoring is required. While preparing a maritime spatial plan, it is important to consider the potential extending the anchoring areas. It is also important to ensure that new anchoring areas are located in areas where it is safe for ships to anchor (e.g. depth and currents are important).


[1]Beyer, Schultz-Zehden et al. (2017): Towards an implementation strategy for the Sustainable Blue Growth Agenda for the BSR

[2] Meyer, N. (2017) Shipping in the Baltic Sea. Past, present and future developments relevant for Maritime Spatial Planning. 

Last Update 25.02.2021