From the magazine – Why does the Netherlands have a CBR and an RDW for road traffic, but not a maritime authority for Dutch merchant shipping? After years of lobbying, the Royal Association of Dutch Shipowners (KVNR) has finally managed to convince a sizeable majority of the Lower House of the usefulness and necessity of establishing such an authority, or the Dutch Shipping Register (DSR), which already exists, but not as a separate entity.

Picture: Holland America Line’s MS Maasdam flying the Dutch flag (by Jean-Philippe Boulet, Wikimedia Commons).

In every issue of SWZ|Maritime, SWZ|Maritime’s editor-in-chief Antoon Oosting writes an opinion piece under the heading “Markets” about the maritime industry or a particular sector within it. In the March 2024 issue, he goes into the need for a Dutch maritime authority.

A DSR where Dutch shipowners, like their counterparts in the UK and Denmark, can turn to 24/7 to deal with all legal matters for their ships and seek assistance if a ship is detained by local authorities. Any country taking itself seriously as a maritime nation with a shipping register (flag state) also has a body that combines all the knowledge to assist and supervise their merchant fleet.

So, the Netherlands too should have a national government body that can assist shipowners, but also make policies that help Dutch merchant shipping on its way to a zero CO2 emission fleet by 2050. A DSR that can develop clear regulations that are manageable for the sector to implement (inter)national rules and laws. And can also monitor and enforce if necessary.

Also read: Dutch parliament orders govt to establish maritime authority

More effective

In short, a Dutch government that becomes more effective with a maritime authority through better coordination between the pillars of policy, implementation and enforcement. With the aim of ensuring an attractive Dutch flag with better services, improving the Dutch maritime business climate and preventing the remaining Dutch shipowners from walking away.

Because while in the past people mainly complained about flags of convenience, there are now many flag states with a shipping register that do much better than the Netherlands. What used to be known as the Dutch Shipping Inspectorate has been whittled down in recent decades to one man and his dog, and which has outsourced many essential matters such as checking crew papers, the seaman’s book, to such incapable bodies as Kiwa.

Markets cartoon accompanying opinion piece
By Hans de Wilde/SWZ|Maritime.

Always holding off

As early as under the presidency of former Transport and Water Management Minister Tineke Netelenbos, shipowners advocated the establishment of a maritime authority. But successive Liberal Ministers of Transport and Water Management, now Infrastructure and Water Management, such as Melanie Schultz van Haegen, Cora van Nieuwenhuizen and now Mark Harbers have always held off its establishment. Apparently from the point of view that policy, implementation and enforcement should be primarily a responsibility of the national government anyway.

But why then was implementation, including service provision, outsourced to a private institution? And why is the knowledge of the shipowners’ association and interest group Netherlands Maritime Technology nowadays structurally called upon to assist Ministry officials at International Maritime Organization (IMO) meetings for policy development? So this division between government and private sector is not that strict. But then again, what to do when you no longer have the necessary knowledge in-house?

Decline of the Dutch fleet

Dutch shipowners have long been dissatisfied with how things are going in Dutch national government. Something that has certainly contributed to the decline of the Dutch merchant fleet or, in other words, the concept of merchant shipping that has fallen into disuse due to a lack of historical and economic knowledge. The number of ships under the Dutch flag has been declining for years, which is not only because it is cheaper to sail under a foreign flag. Because those who sail under a poorer, cheaper flag also run more risk of time-consuming, expensive inspections.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Dutch fleet was among the world’s top ten shipping nations. Since then, with a paltry 1187 ships, the Dutch fleet has fallen back in the rankings maintained by the world trade organisation UNCTAD (2022) to place 31 just behind Bermuda and Cameroon. Since UNCTAD mainly looks at carrying capacity, the Netherlands is even below Belgium, which ranks 26 with only 198 ships, but very large ones.

Also read: China is a systematic rival for European dredging companies

Under foreign flag

However, when looking at ship ownership, the Dutch fleet rises to place 24, but still behind Belgium at 21. Yet, even that is not the whole story, because with Boskalis’ fully Cyprus-flagged fleet alone, at 600 units one of the largest in the world, the Dutch shipping register would be considerably larger. There are also many other Dutch shipowners who have their ships flying foreign flags.

Over the past decade, the number of Dutch-flagged ships has decreased by another ten per cent. According to figures from the annual Maritime Monitor, 1236 ships sailed under the Dutch flag in 2015. That number remained fairly stable at 1212 ships in 2021.

In 2022, however, there was a drop of 66 ships to 1146 units. According to KVNR figures, less than 1100 ships currently sail under the Dutch flag. Hence, the KVNR has been calling for the establishment of a maritime authority to keep the Dutch shipping register attractive and competitive for years.

‘With a strong maritime vision with implementation power as its foundation, the number of sea-going vessels under the Dutch flag should be able to increase considerably. Partly through policy with the power to take action and implementation that provides services,’ said KVNR president Annet Koster in a press release issued by the KVNR on the occasion of the adoption of a motion in Dutch Parliament in which a large majority (119 members) called on the government to set up a maritime authority.

Motion for establishment

The motion for the establishment of a maritime authority was tabled on 25 January by CDA MP Eline Vedder. ‘Sailing under the Dutch flag must become more attractive by establishing a maritime authority, which will prioritise service provision, registration tasks and certification,’ Vedder said during the budget debate of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management.

MPs from Dutch political parties ChristenUnie, SGP, BBB and VVD also signed the motion. In addition, PVV, NSC, D66, Volt, FvD and JA21 also voted in favour of the motion. Thus, on Tuesday 30 January, a large majority of the Lower House voted in favour of the motion with a clear mandate for the government. Only the PvdA/GroenLinks, SP and Partij voor de Dieren abstained from supporting the motion, but of course they have nothing to do with shipping either.

Also read: ‘The Dutch have a lot to learn from other Europeans’

Economic impact

To support its plea for the establishment of a maritime authority, the shipowners’ association commissioned research by the Amsterdam Economic Bureau (Economisch Bureau Amsterdam) into the economic impact of the Dutch shipping register, more specifically its direct and indirect welfare and employment effects. When a ship registers in a flag state’s shipping register, it is allowed to fly the corresponding flag. In return, the relevant country bears responsibility for the ship.

Within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, both the Netherlands and Curaçao have shipping registers. Ships from both registers fly the same
flag. However, different rules and treaties apply to Dutch-flagged ships than to ships registered in the Curaçao register. The Netherlands has a concrete establishment requirement for shipowners, making it a so-called national register. Dutch-flagged ships generally have a good reputation as there are relatively few detentions.

Triple value

According to research by the Amsterdam Economic Bureau, a shipping register provides economic value to a country in three ways. The first is the activities of shipowners ashore with staff at the shipping offices and crews at sea and, of course, the income from transporting cargo. The second source of economic value is the administration of the registry. It obviously requires staff to carry out the work of the maritime authority for which shipowners have to pay. Thirdly, the knock-on effect of both activities in the economy.

The Amsterdam Economic Bureau has calculated that economic activities associated with the register in its current form are worth EUR 1.89 billion. That is 0.19 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). So that covers the not even 1100 ships currently registered under the Dutch flag, according to the KVNR.

In an alternative scenario with a maritime authority studied by the Amsterdam Economic Bureau, the government would have more direction in managing the register. This would allow the fleet registered under the Dutch flag to grow to 1300 ships. In this scenario, the economic value would grow to EUR 2.07 billion (0.21 per cent of GDP). Under this improved registry, the number of jobs could also grow from 11,400 to 12,400 (0.12 per cent of employment).

Also read: ‘It took a war to put Dutch shipbuilding back on the agenda’