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Dark fleet: Out of mind, but not out of sight

The dark fleet’s blatant sanctions evasion is ultimately a political matter, but the clear and present danger these ships present in terms of safety is a global risk that needs to be urgently addressed

Hundreds of substandard, unclassed, uninsured vessels are routinely hauling Russian oil internationally while avoiding any serious oversight, so why are governments looking the other way and pretending the dark fleet is invisible?

RUSSIA’s industrial scale sanctions-evasion programme is growing more complicated and sophisticated, courtesy of an ever expanding “dark fleet” of subterfuge shipping and a shadowy network of brass plate companies and middlemen beyond the reach of Western interventions.

But the suggestion that these state-sponsored opaque operations are somehow invisible or untouchable, is well wide of the mark.

Much of the dark fleet activity is “hiding” in plain sight and most of the rest is entirely accessible to analysts with the right data tools who know where to look.

Lloyd’s List’s investigations have identified and tracked the rise of the so-called dark fleet, which now covers around 10% of tankers trading internationally. Any suggestion that this knowledge is somehow out of reach to governments or companies is itself another layer of obfuscation in the increasingly complex and politically weaponised risk and compliance agenda.

Given the naming, nobody can accuse the actors who established the Marshall Islands-registered front company Shadow Shiptrade SA at the outset of sanctions of being anything less than upfront about their intention to thumb their noses at Western restrictions.

As we write, Shadow Shiptrade’s singular asset — 26-year-old Cameroon-flagged Georgian aframax Turba (IMO: 9144782) — is heading towards the English Channel having loaded oil in Russia on March 24. It is a routine journey for this vintage tanker which has regularly sailed through European waters over the past year, even loitering in the STS hotspot of Greek coastal waters for an extended period in February.

And yet Turba has not been surveyed since 2017 and was last inspected by port state control in 2010.

It flies a flag blacklisted by the Paris MoU and exhibits a textbook pattern of deceptive behaviour that should have most due diligence systems checks flashing red and sounding a very loud alarm for good measure.

It was of little surprise then that Turba has become the poster ship of the dark fleet in recent days, having had its subterfuge activities raised by Spain inside the International Maritime Organization as the example of everything that was wrong with a system that allows 440 ageing tankers to sail internationally with almost no scrutiny from mainstream authorities.

The vessel is no anomaly. Most of this dark fleet have not been inspected recently, have substandard maintenance, unclear ownership, no insurance and are being operated to circumvent sanctions and high insurance costs. And yet these ships are engaging in highly dangerous and environmentally risky ship-to-ship transfers with no oversight.

Their blatant sanctions evasion is ultimately a political matter, but the clear and present danger they present in terms of safety is a global risk that needs to be urgently addressed.

While Spain’s intervention drew earnest nods of concern at the IMO this week, the willingness of flag and port states to address the issue remains to be seen.

Responding to Spain’s call for action, Russia, inevitably, warned would be interventionists against “restricting the actions of other states” and while a series of recommendations to tighten flag and port state oversight may sound like a step in the right direction, realistically those states currently ignoring the dark fleet will likely not change their habits on the say so of a legal committee recommendation.

Despite Turba’s routine transits through European waters, it has understandably steered clear of Paris MoU port state control. Its chosen destinations feature less interested regimes willing to overlook sanctions certainly, but also in no hurry to address the blatant safety and certification breaches that would almost certainly see much of the dark fleet detained tomorrow on safety grounds if they went near a European port state inspector.

But this is not simply a political oversight. Corporate oversight when it comes to sanctions risks is a sliding scale of risk versus reward.

As the latest company to fall foul of lobby group United Against Iran’s eagle-eyed sanctions spotting, Euronav has hastily convened an investigation to work out whether they may have inadvertently stored Iranian crude at the behest of an unnamed customer.

Whether Euronav’s robust due diligence checks have somehow fallen short is yet to be confirmed, but even a cursory look at the tanker involved in this case, Vietnam-flagged aframax tanker Abyss (IMO: 9157765), would have flagged a trading pattern that is at best suspicious.

The trading history of Abyss is littered with similar incidents and the tanker is one of several Vietnam-flagged vessels that has been actively engaged in loading and transferring Iranian crude.

It was also involved  in an aborted ship-to-ship transfer involving Maersk Tankers last year and a similar incident in 2019 that saw Italian oil firm Eni reject a cargo on quality grounds amid suggestions that the oil loaded from Abyss via a separate STS operation was Iranian rather Iraqi. 

Of course, nobody is suggesting that Euronav, a highly reputably firm with a solid track record of regulatory checks, would have risked a sanctioned cargo for what will have been a very, very minor deal at a point when they are earning some of the best rates in living memory at the foot of what promises to be a very lucrative tanker supercycle.

But if it can happen to Euronav, and Maersk Tankers and Eni, it can happen to anyone.

Whatever the final details of Euronav’s internal investigation, this episode is likely to be taken as a salutary reminder to operators everywhere that even the biggest operators are vulnerable and need to be looking harder at every detail.

The dark fleet has been allowed to form because of the willingness of governments to turn a blind eye to the safety risk it poses rather than embroil themselves in difficult politics.

Shipping companies do not have that luxury and cannot make the mistake of thinking that dark fleet is somehow invisible.

As Euronav rightly put it this week — it’s a minefield out there and everyone is going to have tread more carefully than ever.


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