London Ship Insurers Helped Fishing Vessels Turn Off AIS & “Go Dark”

London’s ancient ship insurance business may not receive enough attention when illegal fishing is concerned. But as per a new complaint, the UK capital’s insurance industry is to blame partially when fishing vessels “go dark” by switching off the mandatory satellite tracking equipment.

In a filing to City of London watchdogs, the Blue Marine Foundation (ocean conservation charity) has argued that EU-flagged vessels that are operating in the Indian Ocean and go dark are more likely to breach international, coastal state, and flag state laws and the UK insurance the industry is facilitating this by continuing to provide cover, putting the lives of seafarers at risk.

The complaint raised to the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulatory Authority is based on an analysis of what the charity refers to as “highly inconsistent” Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) used by 46 fishing vessels from the EU for over four years, mostly owned by French and Spanish companies.

Fishing Vessels Go Dark
Image for representation purposes only

It pointed toward three British companies – British Marine, Britannia Steam Ship Insurance Association Ltd, and MS Amlin – for insuring vessels despite AIS issues.

An AIS tracks a ship’s location, acting as a navigational and safety aid that, in part, helps the ship captains avoid collisions when at sea. Turning off the AIS for prolonged periods places crew members’ lives at risk and raises transparency concerns.

It mentioned that while there were no concrete suggestions, the vessels that were studied were engaged in unlawful activities. Switching off the AIS should immediately raise “red flags” with the insurers, as it indicates potential illegal or unauthorized activities, such as fishing in unauthorized areas might be taking place.

An insurer, British Marine, reported to the Guardian that the EU-owned vessels recognized by the charity are placed on the “watch list” based on the findings.

The complaint has been based on a peer-reviewed legal study conducted by Blue Marine. This was published last month. The research paper titled the Illegality of Fishing Vessels Going Dark and Methods of Deterrence further concluded that insurers have a responsibility to curb unlawful behaviour and suggested that insurers empower ships to “go dark” owing to weak due diligence.

Legal guidance from Lloyds and the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (OFSI) adds that significant gaps in AIS transmission are big “red flags” for insurers.

The OFSI guidance recognizes legitimate causes behind the switching off the AIS but also states AIS is intentionally disabled by vessels that desire obfuscating whereabouts and is often practised by ships that seek to conduct illicit trade.

The risk assessments are vital to ensure the safety of crew members and the transparency of fleets navigating “out of sight” and exploiting the stocks of tropical tuna, of which two of three are overfished in the Indian Ocean. 

The EU is the greatest harvester of the overfished yellowfin tuna in that region. Blue Marine mentioned that monitoring EU-owned fishing ship data in the Indian Ocean for about four years has reflected the “highly inconsistent” use of AIS to be persistent. 

A report by Blue Marine and the intelligence company OceanMind found that, between 2021 (January) and 2022 (August), EU-owned tuna vessels reportedly spent more time in the “dark” than they did while sailing with the AIS. All the 16 Spanish-flagged ships that Blue Marine monitored spent one month in the “dark”, with some spending up to 140 days with the AIS off.

 Legitimate reasons behind a ship “going dark” include avoiding detection in high-risk zones for piracy risks. The OceanMind report, however, reflected AIS gaps a significant distance from the earlier high-risk area, which has not come into existence since January 2023, suggesting that such behaviour is “highly unlikely” to be associated with piracy.

Kevin Shallow, the director of underwriting for marine at QBE Europe, the parent company of British Marine, said that in association with stakeholders all over the fishing industry, including their customers, the firm is working to improve and promote safety and identify operators that do not comply with the appropriate standards. Besides, policy wordings have also been strengthened to enforce swift actions via withdrawal of coverage.

References: The Guardian, The Local Report

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