Vessel Registration in Canada

by John M. MacFarlane 2017

Vessel Registration

The covers of the annual publication of the Canada List of Shipping was the publicly available version of the records which were popularly known as the Blue Books. An individual register record was covered by dark blue hard covers that looked just like a passport. There were the ship’s "papers". (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. The blue books have not been published since 2003 but the current records are available online. These records are current but there is now no place to look up ownership history prior to current owners.)

All merchant ships are required by international law to be "registered". This is a form of documentation and authorization for the ship to exist and operate and creates it as a legal entity. The country in which the registry exists is known as the ‘flag state’. This state regulates the and certifies the vessel’s condition as well as its equipment. They also certify its safety and pollution prevention programs.

Vessel Registration

The official record was filled in by hand by the Registrar (a federal civil servant) by hand in ink. These sheets were bound into large books which were kept in the port office. In 2017 these records have all been removed to warehouses in Ottawa by Libraries and Archives Canada. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

Some countries control registration through its government agencies (Canada follows this model). In other countries private agencies or organizations undertake this work. If the registry is only open to vessels from that country it is a national registry. If the registry is open to ships from foreign countries are known as open registries. These are often known as ‘flags of convenience’. In the 1980s the majority of these vessels were registered in the "PanLibHonCo" countries – ships carrying the flags of Panama, Liberia, Honduras, and Costa Rica. Today there are several more nations which are perceived to have relaxed requirements for registration or for safety and pollution control regulations.


Small Vessel Registration Number beginning with "C" fllowed by a unique number. Small vessels are often informally named bu the names are not protected and can be duplicated. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

There were, at one time, six Ports of Registry in British Columbia: Victoria, Vancouver, Nanaimo, Port Alberni, Prince Rupert and New Westminster. Ports of Registry are not all located on the ocean – even Edmonton and Winnipeg are Canadian Ports of Registry. The Registrar of Shipping is the Collector of Customs at those Ports. All commercial vessels, including fishing vessels, over 15 register tons must be registered. All pleasure vessels or vessels other than commercial vessels, over 20 register tones, must be registered. Registration is a procedure for documentation for establishing title.

To register a ship, small craft or pleasure craft in Canada the process is fully explained in the Transport Canada website.

When a vessel is registered its ownership is divided into 64 indivisible shares. No one really knows why but it is thought that:

  • -for the convenience of practical men, the binary system was used, where the shares in the vessel were halved until the whole was reduced to 64 parts;
  • -during the reign of Queen Elizabeth ship owners were taxed to pay for naval protection and to secure this tax the Crown took 36 of the original 100 shares in each vessel, leaving the owner 64 shares, and that although the tax was later remitted the custom of vesting absolute title through 64 shares has persisted.

In Canada, you may either register or license a pleasure craft. A commercial vessel must be registered unless exempted from registration under the Vessel Registration and Tonnage Regulations, subsection 1.1 "Exempted Classes of Vessels." All commercial vessels must be registered. There are two options: the Canadian Register of Vessels and the Small Vessel Register.


Licenced Vessel (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

Section 46 of the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 (CSA 2001), which came into force on July 1, 2007, requires that all vessels, other than pleasure crafts or those registered in another country, be registered in either the Canadian Register of Vessels or in the Small Vessel Register. Those vessels solely used for pleasure are not required to be registered under the CSA 2001. Registration for all human–powered vessels (such as canoes or kayaks), as well as for all small sailing vessels and all small vessels fitted with propulsion motors less than 10 hp (7.5kW) will not be required. Should the owners of such a vessel wish to register their vessel, they are free to do so voluntarily.

In 1963 Lloyd’s Register decided to identify all ships recorded in the Lloyd’s Register of Ships by a unique six figure number which was to remain unique to a ship throughout its life, irrespective of conversions and name changes, and never to be re–applied to another ship. This number is now seven digits long and was subsequently adopted by the International Maritime Organization as a means of identifying ships; the IMO number.

The principal classification societies are:

  • -American Bureau of Shipping (U.S.) (ABS)
  • -Bureau Veritas (France) (BV)
  • -China Classification Society (CCS)
  • -Det Norske Veritas (Norway) (DNV)
  • -Germanischer Lloyd (Germany) (GL)
  • -Hellenic Register of Shipping (Greece) (HRS)
  • -Indian Register of Shipping (India) (IRS)
  • -Korean Register of Shipping (Korea) (KRS)
  • -Lloyd’s Register of Shipping (UK) (LR)
  • -Nippon Kaiji Kyokai (Japan) Class (NK)
  • -Polski Rejestr Statkow (Poland) (PRS)
  • -Registro Italiano Navale (Italy) (RINA)

Every vessel should show its name and Port of Registry on the stern. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

When a vessel changes hands the new owner is required to change and update the registration records. This is not optional – and similar to land or vehicle ownership transfers if the record is not changed the transfer of ownership is not official.


Similar to a Vessel Registration Number – in Canada a fishing licence is a unique 4–6 digit number. The number in the picture designates a fishing licence. Registered vessel names are unique – but can re&nsah;use an older name if the vessel no longer exists. Licenced vessels can use any name as can vessels registered in the Small Craft Register. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection.)

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2017) Vessel Registration in Canada. 2017.


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