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Recurring red flags make dark fleet easy targets for detention

Russia may well need to seek younger ships to shift its oil as many vintage ships from the so-called dark fleet are becoming easy red flag targets for inspectors around the world.

There are more than 700 ships operating today in what data analytics firm brands the opaque fleet, carrying Russian, Venezuelan or Iranian oil.

Among shared characteristics making them easy to spot for port state control inspectors are their age, generally above 17 years old, as well as their choice of flag, insurer and latterly their classification society choice.

Among the underperforming ships listed by the Tokyo MOU for April, for instance, are ships classed by little known class societies including Asia Shipping Certification Services from landlocked Mongolia, a nation that is also flagging more and more of the dark fleet. Other class societies popping up on detained vessel lists include Dalian-headquartered Union Bureau of Shipping, Belize-based Novel Classification Society, Overseas Marine Certification Services from Panama, and Yantai-based Universal Maritime Bureau.

Singapore, a vital transit point for the world’s tanker trades, has detained 33 ships for failing safety inspections so far this year, the same as for the whole of the decade through 2019, according to figures carried by Bloomberg citing data from the Tokyo MOU. April saw nine detentions, the most for any month since at least 2010.

Singapore’s maritime bodies have been spooked by the explosion a month ago today of an uninsured 1997-built aframax tanker called Pablo in nearby Malaysian waters with three crewmembers dying. Malaysian authorities remain unsure what to do with the wreck one month on.

Splash reported earlier this week on China also stepping up detentions of vintage tonnage moving Russian oil while across Europe port state control inspectors are on high alert too.

“Although insufficient documentation and safety lapses are typical for vessels operating in opaque markets carrying Russian, Iranian and Venezuelan crude, the increasing number of tankers detained in Asian ports could mark a potential shift in the attitude towards ageing vessel operating in the grey fleet,” Maersk Broker noted in its latest weekly tanker report.

“The simple fact is that a growing number of vessels that are transporting oil are insured, flagged, and classed with institutions and countries that do not provide anything like the same technical and regulatory oversight as we have come to expect whilst those providing the insurance cover lack the experience and quite possibly the financial capacity to deal with a major incident,” commented Mike Salthouse, a sanctions expert and head of external affairs at NorthStandard, in conversation with Splash last month.

German insurer Allianz released its annual ship casualty report this week in which it noted that vessels belonging to the dark fleet tend to be older ships, operating under flags of convenience with lower maintenance standards.

Reports indicate there were at least eight groundings, collisions or near misses involving tankers carrying sanctioned oil products in 2022 – the same number as in the previous three years, the Allianz report noted.


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