A crude oil tanker which loaded oil in Venezuela last month, in defiance of US sanctions, was flagged as a tanker from Palau– one which was scrapped two years ago.

Steven Kanai, Permanent Representative of Palau to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), says that Palau first learned from a Bloomberg News article on December 14 that the Ndros, a crude oil tanker built in 1999 which is flagged as Palau’s, had docked at Venezuela’s coast, and was expected to be loading crude oil—an action which flies against trade sanctions imposed on Venezuela by the Trump Administration in October 2020.  

However, the Ndros was scrapped in Pakistan in 2018.

The Palau Government has said that the tanker in Venezuela was using a false Automatic Identification System (AIS) signal to mask its true identity, the same system which Palau’s Marine Law Division uses to track vessels in its waters.

Satellite data revealed the mysterious tanker in Venezuela to be the Calliop, a Liberian-flagged tanker registered to Oderand Shipping SA, based in Hong Kong. The vessel is believed to have been using a method called “spoofing” to transmit a false registration number, in this case one belonging to a ship which is no longer sailing.

“Anyone’s easy conclusion is that the Liberian vessel may be engaged in either a sanctioned or illegal act and intended to mask its true identity,” said Mr. Kanai.

The method would have allowed the tanker to violate US sanctions while purchasing oil from Venezuela, in effect dodging potential economic retaliation from the US and pinning the violation on Palau. Palau’s Ministry of State has asked the Venezuelan Government to investigate the matter in letters to several Venezuelan Embassies. However, Palau has still not received a response from Venezuela, says Kanai.

In response to “authoritarian” activities by Venezuela’s largely-recognized leader, Nicolas Maduro, the Trump Administration imposed trade sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, SA, in October 2020. Third-party companies which violate those sanctions could also be barred from trade with the US, such as several shipping companies which have transported Venezuelan oil. The prospect of US sanctions is enough to cause many countries and companies to likewise suspend trade with Petroleos de Venezuela.

The false use of the Ndros’ registration number, instead of its own, could have put the Palau Government in violation of the sanctions, rather than the owner of the vessel.

Mr. Kanai, however, said that a letter detailing the facts of the matter is being circulated to all member states, including the US. This letter is also to “initiate a concerted effort by all member states to combat this fraudulent act”, says Kanai.  

“The Palau Government will never tolerate such a fraudulent act, and will ensure that the perpetrators get what they deserve,” said Mr. Kanai.

He added that Palau intends to address the issue with the international maritime community.

“We hope that by working together with our fellow states, we can help innocent vessels from making mistakes, and prevent those with criminal interests from improperly using the AIS system to engage in illegal activity,” he said.

The AIS system uses transmitters on board ships to convey their positions and identities to satellites. This, in addition to the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) data, transmitting identification data via the ship’s antenna, are used by Palau’s Marine Law to monitor vessels moving through Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The data fed to Marine Law through these systems has helped flag suspicious vessels and determine patrols by ships such as the Remeliik.

However, loopholes such as “spoofing” have caused many experts to question the reliability of AIS identifications by themselves. Marine Law has said that it is planning to increase its aerial surveillance capacity, to compliment the AIS data, with initiatives such as the Sea Dragon Program, a US Air Force surveillance program which uses Synthetic Aperture Radar technology to create digital images, capable of monitoring thousands of miles every hour. 

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