A United Nations agency that oversees shipping raised concerns about the shadow fleet of tankers that has emerged to transport oil amid sanctions, calling for more steps to boost safety.

States that become aware of ships going dark — or turning off their transponders — should be subject to more inspections, according to the legal committee of the International Maritime Organization. 

The panel also took issue with the practice of ship-to-ship transfers of oil on the open ocean, saying that it heightens the risk of pollution for coastal states.

Countries including Spain, Australia, the U.S. and Canada are part of a push at the IMO to increase oversight of the murky activities in oil trading that have emerged within the last year. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and subsequent sanctions by Western governments — upended shipping routes for the world’s most traded commodity.

Spain, which has witnessed a surge in the activity off its north African enclave of Ceuta, said it plans to call for stronger rules governing ship-to-ship transfers of oil at the IMO’s assembly meeting later this year.

The topic is especially sensitive for the country because it suffered one of the worst oil spills in European history when a tanker called the Prestige split in half, leaking almost all its cargo of heavy fuel oil into the sea off the country’s coast.

Spain is seeking certification of the origin of oil transferred from ship-to-ship, said Victor Jimenez, the country’s representative to the IMO, in an interview. The country also wants coastal states to establish specific zones to carry out such transfers, if they could be affected by an accident.

Aging Turba

While more Russian crude has flowed to Asia within the last year, a shadow fleet of hundreds of aging vessels has emerged to facilitate the trade. The committee mentioned a 26-year old tanker called the Turba, which Bloomberg reported Sunday, had collected the same cargo of heavy fuel, from the same Russian port, as the Prestige. 

Tankers “in the dark fleet posed a real and high risk of incident particularly when engaged in ship-to-ship transfers, as they disguised the cargoes’ destinations or origins, or avoided oversight or regulation by flag or coastal States,” the panel said. 

The Russian delegation to the IMO called for governments not to abuse sanctions and to stop restricting actions of other states. While seeing the benefit of some additional oversight, Russia said the source of current concerns is rooted in “illegitimate sanctions,” according to the committee.