Pablo explosion

Devastating Pablo tanker explosion exposes dangers of growing shadow fleet

A devastating explosion occurred on board the aging oil tanker Pablo on Monday, May 1, tearing off its deck and engulfing it in a fierce fire that sent dark plumes of smoke billowing into the sky.

Image credit: Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.

The explosion took place off the coast of Malaysia, in one of the busiest shipping channels in the world, but beyond the congested waters of Singapore.

The Gabon-registered vessel, capable of transporting approximately 700,000 barrels of crude oil, was traversing the South China Sea after unloading its cargo in China and was nearly empty. Out of the 28 crew members on board, officials report that 25 were rescued by passing vessels. The ship was reportedly heading for Singapore before it caught fire 37.5 nautical miles northeast of Tanjung Sedili, a coastal region in Kota Tinggi District, Johor, Malaysia.

Four crew members sustained serious injuries and were taken for medical treatment, according to Malaysian authorities.

Malaysian maritime authorities launched a comprehensive search and rescue operation for the missing three crew members and based on the latest update the search was suspended on May 5 as there were no leads. Based on the accounts of the crew, the missing seafarers are likely to have remained on board the ship, nonetheless, boarding of the tanker has not yielded results.

Bernama reports that the investigation into the cause of the fire, which has since reportedly been extinguished, has been launched by the forensic team of the Malaysian Fire and Rescue Department, Malaysian Police, and Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.

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Nevertheless, there is another very important side of the story. Namely, the Aframax tanker is believed to belong to the so-called ‘shadow fleet of vessels’ being utilized to transport sanctioned oil across the globe. Namely, various reports pointed out that the ship was stripped of its flag several times over the past year amid ties to illicit trading of Iranian oil.

What is more, there is scant evidence regarding the owner, a company registered in the Marshall Islands, which possesses no other ships, and there is no trace of any insurance coverage. Both these factors are critical prerequisites for commencing the cleanup operations, Bloomberg reports.

Reports have emerged of oil, potentially originating from the wreck, washing up on the coast of Indonesia. However, given the limited information available on the responsible party for this vessel, there is no one to be held accountable.

The recent incident involving the aging oil tanker Pablo off the coast of Malaysia highlights the pressing concerns surrounding the expansion of a ‘shadow fleet’ of aging vessels in maritime operations. This incident, coupled with the findings of the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Legal Committee, sheds light on the grave consequences and risks associated with illicit ship-to-ship transfers, obscured ship identities, and fraudulent ship registration.

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The Pablo explosion serves as a tragic reminder of the dangers posed by these aging vessels, which are often operated by undisclosed buyers to transport sanctioned oil. The vessels’ age and questionable maintenance, coupled with the lack of insurance and unclear ownership, make them ticking time bombs waiting to cause environmental disasters and potential accidents.

Participating shipowners who employ these shadow fleets effectively evade their liability under relevant treaties, shifting the burden of responsibility onto coastal states and undermining the spirit of international regulations governing ship-to-ship operations. This places an increased risk on coastal communities and the marine ecosystem.

In conclusion, the Pablo incident shows the urgent need to address the risks associated with shadow fleets, fraudulent ship registration, and the evasion of international regulations.

The maritime industry, along with international bodies and member states, must collaborate to implement stringent measures that ensure the safety of maritime operations, protect the marine environment, and hold accountable those involved in these illicit practices. Failure to do so may lead to more catastrophic incidents, economic losses, and environmental damage in the future.