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Massive Disaster Imminent Due to Russian 'Shadow Fleet', Experts Warn

March 26th in the United States witnessed a significant incident when a container ship collided with the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, illustrating the real dangers inherent in navigating hazardous waters with large vessels.
Despite being under the guidance of two pilots, the incident with the Dali highlights how even a small fraction of ships rejecting pilotage services could lead to regular catastrophic events, as analyzed by Foreign Policy.

Even as ships grow larger and are equipped with sophisticated technology, human decision-making and manual control remain indispensable. Enhancing the crew's ability to manually override technological controls could be the best way to avert another Key Bridge disaster.

The shipping industry, which operates around the clock involving seafarers, officers, dock workers, crane operators, shipmasters, insurers, and many others, remarkably seldom experiences accidents considering the scale and complexity of its operations.

International maritime regulations strongly suggest that most ships passing through Denmark's Great Belt, a narrow strait between the country's largest islands, employ local pilots with the knowledge of the challenging and busy waters, traversed by about 70,000 ships annually. Following international maritime recommendations, such as employing an experienced local pilot for navigating challenging routes like the Great Belt or the Suez Canal, is a common practice.

Copenhagen could block ships rejecting pilotage to enhance maritime safety, potentially leading to a conflict with Russia if it acknowledges its patronage of the 'shadow fleet.' Blocking rule-breaking ships could itself violate international maritime regulations. However, before resorting to such measures, open-source intelligence communities could assist in identifying the owners and locations of 'shadow ships.'

Internal reports leaked to the Financial Times and the Danish research group Danwatch indicate that since the year's start, at least 20 tankers suspected to be part of a 'shadow fleet' transporting Russian oil refused Danish pilots on board.

These vessels navigate the Baltic Sea, passing through exclusive economic zones of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, and Germany, to reach global markets like India and China with their sanctioned cargo.

The Shadow Fleet: Sanctioned Russian Oil's Conduit

The 'shadow fleet' consists of aging ships in their twilight years, transporting goods to and from sanctioned nations, a mission shunned by official ships and their owners. These 'dark ships' pose a significant risk to coastal nations, exacerbated by their flying the flags of countries unlikely to assist in case of incidents and their lack of regular maintenance. Accidents, be they collisions or oil spills, would likely have doubly disastrous consequences.

Compounded by the challenges in tracking their owners and the lack of adequate insurance, a significant spill caused by a 'shadow fleet' ship could leave local authorities and taxpayers with the cleanup costs. These ships are more prone to accidents as they often switch off their Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), hampering navigation visibility.

Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, attempts to circumvent sanctions have bolstered the 'shadow fleet,' now estimated to number around 1,400 vessels, making precise assessment challenging due to the illegal nature of their operations.

In the event of oil pollution, the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund assists affected countries. However, an increase in pollution incidents, likely with the 'shadow fleet,' might deplete the fund's resources.

A Complex Legal Challenge

Given that members of the 'shadow fleet' violate international maritime laws and conventions, the solution isn't straightforward. While these vessels breach regulations, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) grants all ships the right of 'innocent passage,' allowing them to navigate through a country's territorial waters and exclusive economic zone.

Nils Wang, a retired rear admiral and former head of the Danish navy, emphasized that international law regards the Danish straits as international waters, hence Denmark cannot enforce the use of pilots on transiting ships.

Sanctioning the Shadow Fleet Proves Difficult

Although most ships adhere to IMO recommendations and employ pilots, some opt out due to financial reasons, occasionally leading to oil spills.

Denmark, finding creative enforcement methods, announced that ships with a draft over 11 meters not requesting pilots would be reported to their flag state and the IMO.

While coastal states can restrict access in some cases, like ships in poor condition or without proper insurance, the comprehensive UNCLOS agreement signed in 1982 did not anticipate a scenario where a country systematically avoids global sanctions with a 'dark fleet.'

International parties to the convention could convene to mandate pilotage in sensitive waters as a response to the shadow fleet emergency. However, given current geopolitical climates, reaching a conclusive agreement might be unattainable, and since the Danish straits count as international waters, Denmark cannot unilaterally impose new regulations.

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