IMO calls for urgent action as shadow fleet raises safety and liability concerns

The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Legal Committee has highlighted the risks and consequences of ship-to-ship transfers in the open ocean and the methods used to obscure ship identities.

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At its 110th session in London, the committee was informed that a fleet of between 300 to 600 tankers, including some not inspected recently, having substandard maintenance, unclear ownership, and a severe lack of insurance, was currently operated as a ‘dark fleet’ or ‘shadow fleet’ to circumvent sanctions and high insurance costs.

There has been a strong increase in the use of ‘dark fleets’ since the introduction of the G7 oil price cap for Russia’s crude oil and refined products as Russia is reportedly using these vessels to evade the sanctions.

Some of these vessels were previously working Iranian or Venezuelan oil tanker routes but have now switched to Russian cargoes, according to S&P Global.

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The use of such shadow fleets increases the risk of oil spills or collisions and also results in participating shipowners evading their liability under relevant treaties, placing an increased risk on coastal states, the IMO Committee members said. The Committee noted that these practices undermine the spirit of the regulation of ship-to-ship operations of tankers as prescribed by IMO’s International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).

Following discussions, it was concluded that ship-to-ship transfers on the high seas were high-risk activities that undermined the international regime with respect to maritime safety, environmental protection, and liability and compensation.

To combat these practices, flag states are recommended to employ measures ensuring that tankers adhere to bans or regulations of ship-to-ship transfers, and port states enforce safety and liability conventions on these vessels.

The Committee said that other UN agencies should be informed of the issues discussed and of concerns and challenges raised, so that they can also take action for matters under their remit.

The use of substandard tankers and the circumvention of sanctions and regulations could have devastating consequences for the environment and the global shipping industry.

Hence, is imperative that the IMO takes urgent action to address these issues and prevent unlawful practices associated with fraudulent registration and registries of ships.

The creation of a database for flag states and port states to share information on fraudulent registration and registries of ships is a step in the right direction, and more measures are needed to combat these illicit practices.

The Secretariat was asked to consult with S&P Global to describe different options for the proposed database and cost implications.

Finally, the IMO expressed grave concern over the impact of the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine on international shipping and the safety of commercial vessels and seafarers in the northern part of the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait.

The Committee supported IMO’s efforts to assist in the implementation of UNGA Resolution A/RES/ES-11/5, which calls for the establishment of an international register to document the Russian Federation’s acts associated with the invasion of Ukraine and the resulting damages.

The Committee requested the IMO Secretariat to develop options for an assessment project to determine the damages caused to commercial vessels, ports, port facilities, maritime training institutions, and the marine environment in Ukraine, as well as the impact on seafarers, with appropriate cost analysis.

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