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Ship tracking in high risk areas: time for an upgrade

MariTrace, 20 March 2024

On 18 March the US Department of Transportation Maritime Administration (MARAD) issued an updated advisory notice, identifying threats to commercial ships across a wide area from the southern Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. The notice is effective until September 2024, supersedes previous advisories and includes new advice to U.S.-flagged ships, including to turn off their Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders when transiting the Southern Red Sea, Bab el Mandeb Strait and Gulf of Aden.

The MARAD notice identifies threats to "US-flagged and US affiliated commercial vessels" (i.e. ships that have links to US entities in their ownership or management structure) across a broad spectrum of issues: regional conflict, military activities, terrorist attacks and piracy. Within these, MARAD identify three major concerns: hostile actions by the Houthi, affecting traffic in the Southern Red Sea (i.e. south of 18 degrees North) and Gulf of Aden, including the use of UAVs; detentions by Iran, affecting traffic in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea; and piracy, affecting ships in the Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, Somali Basin and Indian Ocean. MARAD also note that limpet mines may pose a threat to commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman.

The MARAD notice covers a very wide geography: the Southern Red Sea, Bab el Mandeb Strait. Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean, Somali Basin, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman, Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. The patterns of traffic in these areas intersect at least three major global supply chains: oil and gas exports from the Persian Gulf; container shipping lanes connecting China with Europe and North America; and supply chains connecting the Mediterranean and Black Sea with markets in South Asia and beyond.

Among the recommendations for mitigating threats to commercial ships, MARAD "strongly advise" US-flagged ships to turn off their AIS while transiting the high risk areas. While shipping regulations generally require that ships continuously transmit AIS, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the IMO permit Masters to turn AIS off in places where its use might compromise the safety or security of the ship and crew.

From navigation aid to identification liability

The concept for AIS was first described in 1965 and, following adoption by the IMO in 1997, has become essential for safe navigation. Yet in today's world its shortcomings are well known: AIS data can easily be altered and ship identifier information is frequently found to be out of date or contain inaccuracies - whether through human error or deliberately introduced misinformation. With an increasing number of actors seeking to evade tracking - for example to avoid sanctions or minimise detection in high risk areas - the choice of AIS 'on or off' is open to exploitation.

In the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the Houthi are believed to be using a variety of sources including radar to detect targets: a strong radar signal but no correlating AIS could invite further investigation, for example using drones or people in small boats to confirm the presence of a ship. Deactivating AIS is not a guarantee of safe transit. MARAD acknowledge that, to date, ships have been attacked by the Houthi in both modes (AIS transponders on or off), but contend that "turning AIS off makes it more difficult to track and accurately target a vessel".

Innovation for secure tracking

The imperative for assuring the safety of crew cannot be understated: recent events in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden have illustrated how merchant seafarers are in the front line of the current conflict with very little protection. Fortunately, ship Masters considering temporarily deactivating AIS in high risk areas do have other options for aiding safe navigation. But for ship owners and managers ashore who wish to prove their safety record and compliance history while also optimising costs and avoiding high risk transits, tracking their fleet becomes more difficult when AIS is deactivated.

The scope of the MARAD advisory indicates that the challenges for safe navigation in the very broad area from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean are not expected to diminish in the near future. The rapid expansion of the grey fleet, sanctions evasion tactics and illicit trade means that closer scrutiny of shipping companies and ship risk profiles is here to stay. Anticipating these challenges, in 2023 MariTrace began testing a novel solution for ship tracking that enables accurate monitoring of ship positions while protecting their information. Officially launched in March 2024, Mercury enables fleet operators and ship owners to accurately track their assets - even when AIS is switched off. Mercury provides assurance that when AIS data is unavailable, or even when it’s active, ship owners and operators have a private, uninterrupted, and reliable insight into their asset’s location that can be securely shared with other trusted parties via the feature-rich MariTrace monitoring platform. Almost 60 years after AIS was invented, ship tracking and identification is getting an upgrade.

No AI was used in the writing of this article. MariTrace analysis and reporting is based on open sources; all information is human-curated and assessed via multi-phase, structured methods using industry-standard techniques to check for provenance, bias and accuracy.

To discover Mercury and enquire about risk assessment for your specific operational needs, please contact us.

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