Going dark is a red flag, says Gard

Irene Anastassiou, Senior Lawyer, Piraeus, has warned in a Gard web alert that a ship turning off its Automated Identification System (AIS) to avoid detection was now counterproductive as it was now having the opposite effect when it came to authorities monitoring vessels in areas covered by sanctions.

AIS was developed to counter the safety limitations of visual/VHF/Radar that were traditionally relied on for safe navigation in busy waterways.

Because vessels with AIS can ’see’ each other’s course and speed in real time, AIS is a critical collision avoidance tool.

SOLAS requires all ships fitted with AIS to maintain it in operation at all times, except where international agreements, rules or standards provide for the protection of navigational information.

Warships are not required to transmit AIS signals, although, following two high profile collisions, the US Navy reported in 2017 that it would turn on AIS in congested waters.

IMO guidelines sate that if the master believes that the continual operation of AIS might compromise the safety or security of his/her ship or where security incidents are imminent, the AIS may be switched off. The date, location and time the AIS is switched off should be recorded in the ship’s logbook, together with the reason for doing so, and the master should restart the AIS as soon as the source of danger has disappeared.

A frequently cited example of a reason for switching off the AIS is when transiting waters prone to piracy in order to conceal the vessel’s identity, location and course from pirates.

Authorities have recently focused on patterns of shipping activity that may suggest trade in contravention of sanctions. In January 2019 all clubs in the International Group of P&I Clubs (IG) issued a circular drawing attention to measures that governments were taking to enforce sanctions on coal and petroleum cargo trading with North Korea. As noted by the IG clubs “the interest of surveillance agencies will be heightened where it is judged that loss of the AIS signal is the result of a Master or other crew member deliberately turning off the transmitter signal in order to conceal the ship’s voyage pattern and navigational activities”.

In March 2019 the US Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) released an advisory to the maritime petroleum shipping community highlighting sanctions risks related to petroleum shipments involving Iran and Syria. The advisory identified disabling AIS transponders as a deceptive shipping practice and recommended that “ship registries, insurers, charterers, vessel owners, or port operators should consider investigating vessels that appear to have turned off their AIS while operating in the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Any other signs of manipulating AIS transponders should be considered red flags for potential illicit activity and should be investigated fully prior to continuing to provide services to, processing transactions involving, or engaging in other activities with such vessel”.

Going dark in areas of heightened surveillance was a red flag to authorities and legitimate reasons might need to be evidenced to dispel suspicion of intentional avoidance of sanctions compliance.