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What is the Dark and Grey Fleet?

A post by on April 27, 2023

The Automated Identification System (AIS) is a radio system which enables the exchange of navigation and other data ship to ship and with shore-based facilities. It shows the course and speed of ships in real time and contributes to collision avoidance and enhances the safety of life at sea, the safety and efficiency of navigation and the protection of the marine environment. AIS provides a global feed of publicly available vessel location and identification information, however, it is not an foolproof method for tracking vessels at sea. “Dark ships” are vessels with their Automatic Identification System (AIS) – a transponder system – switched off so as not to be detectable by public monitoring systems.

In the fishing industry, for example, the primary driver to switch the responders off is for the vessel to engage in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices. It’s also a way to circumvent laws. For example, Russia, Iran and Venezuela which have been reported as shipping oil using dark ships to avoid sanctions and OFAC advisory. Unidentified tankers sailing under the flags of unwitting or careless flag-of-convenience states are transporting huge quantities of sanctioned crude, on a daily basis, with estimates as high as 2 million barrels from Iran, Venezuela, and Russia

Sanctions evasion through deceptive shipping practices like dark shipping is an increasingly common issue in maritime industries that continues to transform into a sophisticated tactic to bypass international law. Evasion tactics, outlined in deceptive shipping practices, could range anything from dark ship-to-ship (STS) transfers at sea to unmonitored and unreported port calls for illicit trade - most often involving oil, liquified natural gas (LNG), and military equipment.

There are also legitimate causes behind the switching off the AIS and “going dark” such as avoiding detection in high-risk zones for piracy risks, which is recognized by the UK OFSI guidance. In addition, there could be technical malfunction in transmission of the AIS. Satellite reception and interference can cause gaps in AIS tracks and there may be areas where no ship signals show up. Furthermore, jamming activities from local authorities may block the receipt and display of signals. AIS can be spoofed and manipulated, such as location, speed and identity, involving the use of various identities, transmitters, and even GPS manipulation. For example, In the Baltic Sea, Russia reportedly interfered with navy vessels’ AIS of Sweden, making it look as if they, too, were near the coast of Russia. Spoofing undermines sanctions and creates risks on the high seas.

Sanctions currently in force ban insurance on tankers carrying Russian oil, but the Kremlin has been able to keep its oil on the market, due to organizations still willing to do business with Moscow. It has also amassed a fleet of ships and the benefit will be ship-to-ship transfers, a deceptive practice, to disguise where its crude oil originated from. Tanker experts at BRS Brokers have argued that shipping should no longer refer to the non-mainstream flotilla of tankers as a shadow fleet and the dark fleet instead should be referred to as the grey fleet in which there are several shades. Lifting of Russian crude or refined products by oil tankers is not illegal, unlike the transport of most Iranian or Venezuelan crude or the shipping of oil into North Korea. However, in order for the transportation of Russian oil to be compliant it has to be in sync with the oil price caps and exported only to nations outside of the EU, the UK and the US.

Given the inherent complexity of detecting and tracking dark and grey fleets, over vast oceans, it is imperative to deploy the full arsenal of artificial intelligence and massive data management which is wired for consuming space, airborne, surface as well as legal, financial, EU,UK,US sanctions data bases.

- Vivek Mital, CEO of VegaMX


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