Who owns the world’s ships?

What are the top shipowning nations today?

Updated on 8/10/2021

Shipping is a notoriously secretive industry. Although MarineTraffic has made it easier than ever before to track ships, find out about the vessel’s age, flag and its technical characteristics, it can be very difficult for members of the public to understand who actually owns which ships and how the business is structured. So what are the top shipowning nations today?

Here we offer a beginner’s guide to the companies behind the ships. Read more below:

Ownership structures

1. Private individuals or families

Shipping is a very unusual global business, dominated by family-run concerns. Many fleets are controlled by privately held family businesses that have been doing so for generations. Family controlled businesses are particularly active in the tramp bulk carrier and container feeder sectors. Many of these families can be found in Greece which in the post-war period has grown to become the world’s most important shipowning nation. Examples include the Angelicoussis Group which is Greece’s biggest shipowner in terms of tonnage, Thenamaris which started in the 1970s and Dynacom.

2. Corporatised family companies

Not content with relying on banks to finance growth, some family companies have funded their fleet expansions by accessing equity or debt in the capital markets. Whilst these companies are publicly owned by shareholders, family interests often remain strong. Examples include Costamare, Danos and Tsakos who are all major Greek shipowning companies listed on Nasdaq in New York.

3. Large corporations

Some big companies, particularly those active in the bulk trades, have shipping subsidiaries and control their own ships and mainly carry their own cargoes. Examples include Brazilian iron ore giant Vale and oil majors like Shell and BP. There are also major diverse shipping companies such as Maersk and Stena, which run a range of vessel types in very different markets.

4. Public or semi-public enterprises

Some ships are owned or controlled by governments and are seen as key strategic assets to serve national interests. Examples include Russia’s Sovcomflot, Shipping Corporation of India and the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines.

Top shipowning nations

Despite its relatively small size, Greece tops the list of shipowning nations, controlling almost 400m dwt (2021). From car carriers to tankers, entrepreneurial Greek owners control over 20% of the world’s ships, serving global trades.

In the second spot are Japanese owners. Large companies such as MOL, NYK and “K” Line predominately move Japanese imports and exports. As an island nation with few natural resources, Japan is reliant on oil, iron ore and coal imports to fuel its industries. Much of this trade is controlled by Japanese shipping companies.

China is the leading shipbuilding nation and has a growing number of ships as China increasingly seeks to control its supply chain. China appears third on the ranking controlling approximately 235m dwt (2021). Companies such as COSCO Group, China Shipping Group and China Merchants have large diversified fleets.

Flag states

Shipping companies can choose which flag to fly on their ship. The owner of a ship may well be in a country other than the state whose flag is flown. For many, the choice is about the taxation arrangements, ship classification requirements, safety record and crewing requirements. The world’s biggest flag is the Panamanian flag, followed by Liberia and the Marshall Islands. Collectively the three states flag about 41% of the world’s ships.

The graphs above were created based on MarineTraffic powerful data on only IMO-having commercial vessels (Containerships, Dry Bulk, LNG Carriers, LPG Carriers, Wet Bulk, Dry Breakbulk, RO/RO) with deadweight> 4999, whose position was received at least once within a year.

Want to know how detailed vessel and manager/owner information can be helpful? Read this insightful guide below:

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Tim is an account manager with London based maritime public relations firm Navigate PR and has been working with MarineTraffic since 2014.