Ship operators who deliberately switch off their identification and tracking electronics could face fines and sanctions, while those not including the correct information could cause a fatal maritime accident, according to Riviera.
If automatic identification system (AIS) and long-range identification and tracking (LRIT) devices are switched off, international, regional and national authorities, traffic management systems and surrounding ships are unable to identify or track vessels.
This came to the attention of the Panamanian Registry in June, when it announced consequences for ship operators who switch off bridge communicators, particularly if this is to hide criminal activity.
Panama’s General Directorate of Merchant Marine (GDMM) will impose sanctions on ships under the Panamanian flag or ships in Panama waters if operators deactivate, tamper or alter AIS and LRIT equipment.
It is mandatory under IMO legislation that LRIT and AIS equipment continues functioning permanently and adequately. Operators should avoid gaps in transmissions of information about the identity and position of the vessel.
If Panama’s GDMM, which monitors the Panama merchant marine fleet, discovers deliberate deactivation of tracking equipment, its sanctions include fines of up to US$10,000 and/or the deregistration or deflagging of the vessel from Panama’s merchant marine fleet.
If AIS and LRIT signals stop transmitting, an automatic alert is sent to Panama’s Navigation and Maritime Safety Department’s fleet control and monitoring section, which will then initiate an internal investigation.
An alert is also delivered automatically to the vessel and GDMM will request a reason for this issue and an internal investigation will be initiated against the vessel.
On the safety side, there is evidence that transmitting incorrect information over AIS can lead to marine accidents. AIS is recognised as an anti-collision aid in navigation when used in conjunction with ECDIS, radar and VHF radio communications.
The US Coast Guard (USCG) alerted vessel operators to ensure they transmit accurate data following a deadly collision between two tugs pulling barge trains on the lower Mississippi River. That accident resulted in one tug capsize and crew fatalities because both towboats were transmitting incorrect AIS data, in particular, the wrong length of their tow.
In response, USCG urged towboat and tugboat owners to check their AIS information is correct and reminded owners of the importance of AIS data entry and display for safe navigation.
USCG’s Navigation Center also published the AIS Encoding Guide to provide instructions on how to populate all data fields in AIS, including the correct overall length.
In Q2 2020, the UK’s Maritime Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) highlighted navigation risks from incorrectly reading AIS data in its report into the collision between UK-registered container ship ANL Wyong and Italian-registered gas carrier King Arthur in the approaches to Algeciras, Spain.
ANL Wyong was stopped, having been given direction by Algeciras pilots to wait outside Gibraltar Bay. King Arthur was making its way towards a boat transfer position inside Gibraltar Bay.
MAIB determined the accident happened because neither bridge team appreciated the risk of collision in sufficient time to take effective action. Due to dense fog, King Arthur’s master could not see ANL Wyong so his assessment of the situation was primarily based on AIS data.
ANL Wyong’s AIS data indicated the container ship was under way, which led King Arthur’s master to turn the gas carrier to starboard to avoid collision. But that action put the vessels on a collision course. MAIB also identified that VHF radio conversations were a significant distraction on board King Arthur in the time prior to the accident.
In its report, MAIB said it was “unhelpful that the AIS navigational status data field did not have a descriptor for a vessel underway but not making way”. As a result, MAIB made a recommendation to the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency to propose a review of AIS vessel status data to include a description for vessels underway but not making way.
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