COLUMN | Sanction-busting “dark ships”: anarchy at sea? [Naval Gazing]

The Gabonese-flagged tanker Pablo becomes engulfed in smoke after it suffered an onboard explosion off southern Malaysia, May 1, 2023.  (Photo: Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency)
The Gabonese-flagged tanker Pablo becomes engulfed in smoke after it suffered an onboard explosion off southern Malaysia, May 1, 2023. (Photo: Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency)

The law of unintended consequences often applies to economic sanctions, and against nations that are considered by the international community to be errant. It is therefore unsurprising that international sanctions against the export of oil from Russia and Iran have spawned a vast network of operations by cheaply acquired, overage, inadequately manned, and frequently decrepit product and crude oil tankers, utilising a complex and opaque web of flags of convenience (FOC) and offshore ownership, with a prime consideration being the avoidance of flag state inspections. These vessels have become known as "dark ships" because of their tendency to operate with their AIS equipment deactivated (i.e. going "dark").

Oil exports boom despite sanctions

The economical working life of a tanker is usually about 15 to 20 years. Some dark ships are 30 years old or more. By the use of such vessels, Moscow has so far managed to export an estimated record-breaking total of 3.13 million barrels per day, while Tehran is currently shipping out about 1.3 million barrels per day. These statistics provide a graphic illustration of the difficulties that can encountered while attempting to enforce sanction regimes. Most of the customers for these oil shipments are located in Asia.

Recent reports from within the shipping and offshore energy sectors indicate that the total number of dark ships could be as high as 750, a quite staggering figure. Ship tracking service Tanker Trackers, for its part, recently estimated that about 30 per cent of the world's tanker fleet is engaged in nefarious activity of some sort.

Dubious practices and accidents

FOCs known to be favoured by operators of dark ships include those of Gabon, Cameroon, Djibouti, Tanzania, Saint Kitts and Nevis, the Cook Islands, and Zanzibar. Management of the ships is usually by way of offshore companies, some of which are known to be located in the UK, the US, the Bahamas, the UAE, and Egypt. Crews are multi-national and reportedly often have to endure poor pay and living conditions.

China is known to have supplied a number of very old tankers to Tehran to operate under the Iranian flag. In an attempt to conceal the origin of their cargoes, some dark ships transporting Iranian oil carry out risky ship-to ship transfers mid-ocean.

Dark ships have been involved in at least eight incidents (collision, grounding, or major mechanical breakdown) over the past year. Some incidents are very recent. The Gabon-registered Pablo suffered a serious fire, with the probable loss of three crewmembers, off Malaysia in early May. In mid-May, the Cook Islands-registered tanker Canis Power lost all power while transiting Danish waters.

No solutions yet in sight

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has thus far proved unable to do anything to improve the situation. It is carrying out an in-depth investigation into the problem and is searching for possible solutions while the governments of the US, the UK, and Denmark have jointly requested that the organisation acts urgently.

However, precisely what can be done to alleviate the situation remains unclear. Analysts are sceptical that the political will exists to form up a dedicated UN-mandated international enforcement operation. Many western navies already have extensive operational commitments while being chronically short of ships and personnel. Also, financial stringency means that yet more cuts in those navies' fleets are on the horizon.

It is conceivable that the tasking of two extant multi-national maritime enforcement contingents could be expanded to include anti-dark ship operations. Combined Task Force 150 is charged with maintaining maritime security in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean, while the International Maritime Security Construct supports freedom of navigation and the flow of trade in Middle Eastern waters. Increased operational commitments of their operations would require the deployment of additional vessels, as well as the provision of considerably enhanced underway board and search capabilities in order to cope with an increased workload.

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Baird Maritime / Work Boat World