April 1, 2022

Number of vessels with lost AIS signals in the Black Sea increases but due to safety rather than subterfuge

Since the invasion, there has been an increase in the number of vessels operating in the Black Sea with lost AIS signals for one day or more, but there is no indication yet that this increase is linked to suspicious behaviour including covert ship-to-ship (STS) activity.

A vessel’s automatic identification system (AIS) plays an important role in commercial shipping, transmitting information about a vessel including its location to help avoid collisions. The use of AIS is mandated by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) but the ability to turn it off and hide a ship’s location has been increasingly used as a tactic to hide illegal or sanctioned activity. Short periods of AIS blackout are relatively common and can occur in areas of poor coverage. Kpler uses a wide range of AIS data sources, reducing the likelihood of falsely indicating a vessel has gone “dark” due to poor coverage.

As a general rule, long periods of lost signal when a vessel is operating in an area where sanctioned trade has historically taken place and when a draught change is observed are red flags that the ship has deliberately gone dark to mask its activity.

Small fuel oil tankers go dark in the Sea of Azov

Since the invasion, there has been an increase in the number of vessels that lost signals in the Black Sea, with no increase in the Baltic Sea. But analysis of the vessels in the Black Sea shows no indication of covert STS activity taking place and almost all of the increase has been small tankers that typically operate within the Black Sea transporting fuel oil and other DPP.

Most of the instances of vessels going dark in the Black Sea have been for less than one day. These periods are so short these can almost certainly be due to loss of signal, rather than intentionally turning off the transponder. Most of the cases where a signal was lost for longer have been vessels less than 5,000 dwt transiting the Kerch Strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, a body of water in close proximity to areas of conflict within Ukraine. These vessels may be turning off their AIS signal to mask their location for the safety of the crew and vessel, rather than illicit trade.

Count of vessels with lost signals per day in the Black Sea - Source: Kpler

No loss of visibility of the large tanker fleet

There have been no occurrences of Aframax or Suezmax vessels obscuring their location and while there have been a handful of times an MR went dark for more than one day, in most cases, the vessel was in ballast and the period was usually just a day, which is not long enough for a STS to take place. Furthermore, Kpler data show no evidence of draught changes or ongoing suspicious activity after the signal returned.

In terms of the Sovcomflot fleet, which accounts for almost all of the Russian large tanker fleet, while we have observed a fall in the utilization of these vessels, there has been no increase in the number of ships with missing AIS signals per day since the invasion.

Sanctions on the import of Russian oil have only been implemented by the US and the UK (to wind down this year), so there is no real need for vessels to hide their activity as it is not prohibited in most cases. It is therefore not a surprise that there is no evidence of large globally trading vessels going dark.

Widespread European sanctions could lead to an increase in vessels hiding their position

If sanctions on the import of Russian oil are implemented more widely by Europe, which may include carrying Russian cargo, there will be a sharp decline in the number of owners willing to engage with Russia. But as we have seen in Iran in recent years since sanctions were re-imposed, there will still be shipowners who take the risk, particularly if India and China continue to buy from Russia. Those owners that do would use all tools available to hide their location.

But there will be significant scrutiny of these cargoes making evading sanctions difficult. In addition, vessels leaving the Black Sea and Baltic must pass through geographic bottlenecks where vessels can easily be observed from the land. The Bosphorus Strait at the mouth of the Black Sea and the Danish Great Belt Strait in the Baltic Sea. Once beyond these regions vessels can go dark and move the cargo via STS, but as shown with Iranian cargoes, when a vessel arrives at a port, Kpler’s wide range of sources and tracking makes hiding the true origin of any cargo difficult.

Russian cargoes with unknown destinations within normal range

There is also no evidence of an increase in Russian exports with an unknown or hidden destination. Self-sanctioning by oil companies and some trading houses have reduced Russian exports of crude and products heading to Europe. Early indications of full month data for March show crude exports (excluding CPC)  fell by 360 kbd m/m, while exports of clean and dirty products fell 300 kbd m/m. These volumes are likely to increase. With around 11.9% of crude cargoes without a confirmed destination, some of this is expected to end up in Europe. The share of unknown destinations is within the normal range at the end of a month compared with an average of 11.7% for the same point in time over the last three months.

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