Dark ships are vessels that have turned off or disabled their AIS (Automatic Identification Systems). As a result, they are not normally visible to satellites/ public monitoring systems, although they are still visible on radar.
The practice of switching off AIS systems/ disabling transponders has been around for a few years. It’s generally associated with illegal activity such as illegal fishing or smuggling. More recently however, it’s associated with sanctions busting, particularly the carriage of Iranian or Russian oil.
So why is it a problem?
Simply put, dark ships tend not to have proper insurance coverage and sail under small registry flags. This means that in the event of a collision, oil spill or a total loss there is no insurance in place to respond. Witness the events of the 1997 built Pablo which recently exploded in Malaysian waters. The whole system of salvage and wreck removal depends on insurance cover being in place. Failing that, we face the prospect of abandoned ships with nobody there to fund the costs of their removal. In the case of the Pablo, there was, on this occasion, no oil spill although wreck removal issues remain. However, at some point, there is bound to be a more serious incident involving one of these dark ships. The very fact that they are older, less well maintained and often involved in risky STS operations offshore increases the risk of something going wrong. Many EU states have already taken steps to prevent illicit STS shipments in their economic zones and this has seen a reduction in STS operations off Kalamata in Greece and Ceuta, the Spanish enclave in North Africa. However, new STS zones have developed to replace these areas and attempts to police such activity has so far been ineffective. More recently, certain newly established tanker operators have been linked to the trade in Russian oil and of course they have done that on the back of bona fides ship owners who have taken advantage of a booming tanker market to offload their older tonnage for premium second-hand prices.
Is there a solution?
There is an IMO paper in circulation which seeks to impose greater restrictions on STS operations. Existing MARPOL regulations call for tanker operators to inform a state at least 48 hours in advance of any planned STS operation within an economic zone (which extends now to 200 miles from the coast). So, it seems that the framework is there but there is little that a state can do in practice when dealing with ships that take measures to evade detection. There are also plenty of other states and flags who are prepared to turn a blind eye to such evasion and to the oil price cap scheme presently in operation. Recent advances in technology (particularly radio frequency spectrum tracking) can detect dark ships albeit that they cannot identify the vessels details. Such detection would need to be followed up by a visual investigation to determine if a dark ship was involved in illicit activity.
Dealing with the threat?
In the absence of solutions to the problem of dark ships, the only prudent course of action for ship owners is to exercise enhanced vigilance when it comes to navigation in areas where dark ships are known to operate. In practice, many fishing vessels turn off AIS to disguise illegal fishing. Those on watch have had to deal with this for many years but the practice in such cases is for vessels to keep clear of any vessel engaged in fishing activity (and the Collision regulations provide as such). The position is different with other vessels under navigation.
Under SOLAS, large ships are equipped with X and S Band radars which when used in combination ought to be capable of detecting other vessels. When used correctly, these navigational aids can be used to determine collision risk so that the bridge team can take the appropriate steps to deal with that under the Collision Regulations. The issue of course is whether the illicit vessel will respond as per the Collision Regulations. There must be a risk that it may not and this may lead to an incident even in circumstances where proper steps are taken.
It follows that dark ships increase the risk to all legitimate vessels engaged in navigation and the greater the number of dark ships, the greater the risk of a collision and potentially catastrophic consequences.