Maritime industry seeks to combat black oil transfers at sea


An oil tanker is seen in the sea east of Caracas in this 2003 archive photo. REUTERS / Jorge Silva // File Photo

  • Increase in the volume of oil transfers from countries affected by sanctions
  • Major oil transport companies concerned about false documents

LONDON / MEXICO CITY, July 13 (Reuters) – Biggest oil transport companies say they have tightened operational guidelines and deployed technology to prevent accidental sanctions violations, as countries hit by increasingly stringent restrictions fight back with elaborate strategies to dodge them.

Washington has stepped up sanctions related to shipping over the past two years to make it harder for countries, like Iran and Venezuela, to export the oil that is their main source of income.

In response, Iran and Venezuela have developed sophisticated methods to circumvent sanctions, which are also imposed to a lesser extent by the European Union.

As a result, it is more difficult for shipping companies to avoid unintentionally facilitating blacklisted exports, potentially exposing them to a shutdown of the US financial system or even asset seizure.

One way to escape sanctions is to hide behind the practice of transferring oil from one ship to another at sea, known as ship-to-ship (STS) transfer.

STS transfers are widely and legitimately used to prevent ships from having to enter a port area and incur port fees or when the ships are too big to enter a terminal.

Sanctions crooks can use STS to falsely document the origin of the oil as a country close to the place of transfer rather than its true origin.

As Iran and Venezuela boosted their exports, cargo trackers have detected an increase in the number of open-water STS transfers over the past year. They take place off the Malaysian coast, in places off Africa and also in the Caribbean, according to shipping and trading companies.

Maersk Tankers, which commercially operates the world’s largest fleet of more than 220 product tankers, said the company struggles with falsifying cargo documents, making legitimate use of STS transfers more difficult.

“The increase in practices to evade sanctions and the increased creativity applied to them is forcing companies to have the capacity to react with stricter measures,” Eva Birgitte Bisgaard, chief compliance officer of Maersk Tankers, told Reuters.

Maersk Tankers said it has deployed new technology to monitor vessel movements and property structures to detect any suspicious activity that it could further investigate.


In separate incidents in December and January, two ships operated by Maersk Tankers nearly loaded shipments of Iranian oil, the origin of which was withheld.

STS operations were halted before the transfer of cargoes after Maersk Tankers was alerted by the US pressure group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).

UANI, which monitors tanker traffic linked to Iran through vessel and satellite tracking, said it was aware of several illicit oil transfers that affected shipping companies in regular trade.

“More often than not, by the time the STS gets to a large company, such as Maersk Tankers, the ships have surrendered to many STS in an attempt to hide the origin of the cargo,” UANI’s Claire Jungman said. .

Other large companies are separately trying to uncover the illicit activity.

U.S. agribusiness group Cargill, one of the world’s largest ship charterers, said it has increased oversight of all parties it trades with, including ownership structures.

Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L), which used more than 4,000 ports, terminals and berths worldwide last year, raised the issue of risks associated with cargo documentation, which is not standardized in the industry with different regulations in different jurisdictions adding to the complexity, a spokesperson said.


Under the MARPOL International Maritime Convention, vessels providing STS in territorial waters are required to notify the coastal authority 48 hours in advance, while companies conducting STS in open sea lanes are expected to notify the flag register.

All commercial vessels must be registered or flying the flag of a particular country, in part to comply with safety and environmental regulations. Small countries of registry generally do not have the resources to monitor the volume of STS that takes place on the high seas.

Illicit STS was unlikely to follow MARPOL’s rigorous standards, shipping experts said.

A ship captain who oversaw the Venezuela-linked STS until this year told Reuters that US sanctions led to more secret transfers of Venezuelan oil that were unsupervised and used equipment that flouted standards. He declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.

The violation of maritime safety rules threatens tourism and fishing.

“Our crystal-clear Caribbean waters are the main tourist attraction on which most countries depend for their economic livelihoods and fisheries,” Peter Brady, director general of the Jamaica Maritime Authority, told Reuters.

“Any major pollution incident would have serious consequences for both island states and countries bordering the basin.”

Editing by Barbara Lewis

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