Granting a Place of Refuge



Having completed a thorough survey of the Norwegian coastline between 1994 and 1995, with the aim of identifying suitable places of refuge for ships in distress, and having assigned the powers to handle incidents involving a vessel in distress to one agency, the Norwegian authorities are better prepared than most to reach a quick and rational decision on whether the casualty should be sent further out to sea or allowed to enter a place of refuge.

Norway has already implemented most of the measures regarding the establishment of guidelines on places of refuge under discussion by the International Maritime Organization's Subcommittee on Safety of Navigation and the European Union.

Granting or Refusing a Place of Refuge

Responsibility for handling a tanker accident rests with the Norwegian Coastal Directorate's Department for Emergency Response (DER), located south of Oslo in the town of Horten. Under the Norwegian Pollution Act 1981, the DER has the authority to grant a stricken vessel's request for a place of refuge, or order it to shore or further out to sea, if it is at the time lying within the Norwegian territorial sea. Under no circumstances is the owner's approval required.

The decision whether to grant refuge to a vessel in distress could have a variety of consequences. While the Prestige disaster is still fresh in the public's mind, a refusal to grant shelter to a vessel in distress will not necessarily result in an environmental catastrophe such as that recently seen in Spain. In comparison, the 285,000 deadweight tonne tanker Khark 5 suffered an explosion west of Morocco in 1989, and was refused shelter. An estimated 85,000 tonnes of oil escaped, but little or none reached shore and the vessel was saved. Thus, the decision to deny shelter and keep a casualty off the coast may be less reckless than some have alleged in the wake of the Prestige disaster.

Nevertheless, refusals to give shelter have also led to unfortunate results. These include the sinking of the Erika off the coast of France in December 1999 and, more recently, the sinking of the Prestige. As a result of these high-profile disasters, the likelihood of a tanker in distress being granted refuge or being ordered to take refuge along the Norwegian coast has increased greatly. The Norwegian minister for fisheries, who is ultimately responsible for the DER, said in a January 2003 press release that the Norwegian authorities believe the best solution in certain circumstances would be to bring a casualty like the Prestige into a place of refuge or even to beach it to avoid polluting large parts of coastline.

In fact, the power to grant refuge has already been used on several occasions. One such occasion was when the panamax bulker John R grounded and broke in two off northern Norway in December 2000. The bow drifted out to sea and was in danger of sinking. The Norwegian authorities granted a request by the vessel's owner for refuge in a sheltered fjord. The resulting minor oil spill was efficiently handled by the Norwegian authorities in close cooperation with the owners.

It is of the utmost importance that local authorities have considered the possible scenarios that may develop so that a quick decision can be made on whether a particular casualty should be ordered out to sea or granted shelter.


The Norwegian authorities are in the process of formalizing their contingency plans on how to handle a casualty in accordance with the European Union's 'Erica II' Directive. While not a member of the European Union, the directive applies to Norway through its membership in the European Economic Area (EEA). All EU and EEA members must implement the directive by February 2004.

The Norwegian authorities are also preparing other measures to tackle the growing threat of oil pollution from ships along the Norwegian coast. These include:

  • extending the territorial sea from four to 12 nautical miles;

  • establishing traffic separation zones along the coast;

  • the increased monitoring of traffic; and

  • increasing stockpiles of oil pollution clean-up equipment, including skimmers and booms. Having entered into various agreements with tug owners for the use of their vessels in case of emergency, the Norwegian authorities have signalled that the powerful navy anchor handling tug Valkyrien will be moved from its station in Bergen to northern Norway before Summer 2003.

For further information please contact Gaute Gjelsten or Trond Eilertsen at Wikborg, Rein & Co by telephone (+47 22 82 75 00) or by fax (+47 22 82 75 01) or by email ([email protected] or [email protected]).