The Dark Fleet Might Cause Anarchy in the Oceans

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A Seatrade Maritime news source speaks about the dark fleet – creeping anarchy in the world’s oceans.

Dangers the “dark fleet” raises

The fatal explosion that ripped through the tanker Pablo offshore Malaysia has focused attention on the dangers the “dark fleet” raises for shipping safety.

It ought to be a red light flashing – an alarm signal alerting both world shipping and its regulators that there is something with the potential to do serious harm to an essential industry already under scrutiny for its environmental record.  The gruesome wreckage of the Aframax Pablo, swinging to its anchor in the South China Sea, ought to be ringing alarm bells, wherever the so-called “dark fleet” of sanction-busting tankers is to be found. This, after all, is the second, albeit far more serious accident (with its three missing crew and multiple injuries) in these busy waters.

Where is the will to stop any of this growing threat to other shipping, coastal states and the global liability and compensation regime? You do not require a terribly long memory of a period in shipping’s recent history of a time when low maintenance became no maintenance, with fatal consequences. And there is no secret about the risks that are being run by the shadowy figures who have moved into the transport of cargo from Russia, Venezuela and Iran.

Recent meeting of the IMO Legal Committee

At the recent meeting of the IMO Legal Committee, a whole range of doubtful practices were detailed, ranging from the dangers of ship-to-ship transfers of oil in the high seas and other unsuitable locations, to the routine practices of operating with AIS transponders turned off, a fairly conclusive reason for having something to hide.

But even more important and worrying is the age and operational standards of the dark fleet, said to be between 300-600 ships, with overdue inspections, almost certain sub-standard maintenance, opaque ownership and extremely dubious insurance status. What is particularly worrying is the speed with which this deterioration has arisen and its threat to a well-run system that gave reasonable confidence to the industry players and the regulatory regime. Is there any will to stop this creeping anarchy, or is it all to be lost in tedious legal arguments about sovereignty and freedom of the seas? Where is the robust, international and immediate response that will stop this becoming a far worse international scandal that will leach out into the rest of world shipping?

There are flag states, which could just about cope with the registration of time-expired tiny coasters, which now find to their delight they are responsible (one should use this word advisedly), for fleets of elderly VLCCs, hopefully providing them with a delightful uplift in fees.

Ships which change their identities almost overnight

There are ships which change their identities almost overnight, owned by brass-plate entities of dubious provenance that will disappear in the blink of an eye. One doesn’t want to even consider the potential for serious criminality and money laundering in this exciting currency of elderly ships. There are so-called classification societies, “Responsible Organisations” with no technical competence and lucrative business for suppliers of seafarers to run these ships for one-off voyages, about which questions will not be welcomed.

Who will be picking up the pieces after these ships come to grief? Where is the traceability, who might conceivably be liable for the wreck removal, the pollution response, the compensation for the relatives of the dead and the injured. You might suggest that this is just a phase caused by temporary circumstances like the war and the imposition of sanctions (which have always been problematical). But while it lasts, are innocent others just bound to suffer from the almost automatic evasion of liabilities after the inevitable accidents? Why pay into pollution funds when the evasive…..evade?

It is probably true that there are some parts of the world at more risk than others from the deterioration of the dark fleet over time. The great straits, places of maritime confluence, the winter capes, for instance. International maritime lawyers might huff and puff but who could possibly blame coastal states from unilaterally banning these ships from their EEZs and if they have appropriate military means, subjecting ships which stray into their seas to proper inspections.

“Innocent passage” isn’t very innocent when it involves ships with thoroughly suspect credentials, so it should be perfectly legitimate to ask questions, prohibit anchoring or ship-ship transfers. Or do we just sit around and wait for further groundings, collisions, explosions and other calamities, possibly involving a great deal of split oil.


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Source: Seatrade Maritime