When one number hides two identities it’s key to know what you’re looking at to make the right business decision. Using AI, Maritime expertise and experience, below is the curious case of how one vessel appeared to be in two oceans at the same time.
A Panamanian-flagged oil tanker goes dark off the coast of Korea. Given the proximity to North Korean waters, this could mean the ship is helping Pyongyang evade sanctions on oil imports. This theory is lent further credence by the vessel’s previous infractions: it was flagged in this OFAC advisory for engaging in Ship-to-Ship (STS) transfers of oil to Syria, in breach of international embargos on the Assad regime.
Taken at face value this is cause for concern – for the UN and governments seeking to put pressure on North Korea’s economy via sanctions; to the bank(s) that may have financed the cargo; and the insurers that enabled the vessel to operate.
Of course, it’s possible the vessel’s AIS signal simply got lost, and that it wasn’t up to no good. But here’s another question to consider: what if the ship we thought was loitering off North Korea was another vessel entirely?
That’s not as crazy as it might sound. As it happens, the ship in question – the MARSHAL Z – was, on this occasion, minding its own business some 7,000km away, off the coast of Oman. The vessel going dark off North Korea was in fact the UNIVERSE HONESTY. Why the confusion?
Well, aside from flying the Panamanian flag at the time, the MARSHAL Z and UNIVERSE HONESTY don’t have much in common. They look different. They carry different commodities (oil vs dry bulk). And where the MARSHAL Z is almost 270 metres long, the relatively shrimpy UNIVERSE HONESTY is almost 100 metres shorter. Yet they do appear to share one other important trait: the same MMSI number, in this case 355357000.
MMSI numbers are one of a vessel’s identifiers. Assigned by the flag state and subject to changes over the course of a ship’s life, it is the prime identifier when it comes to AIS tracking because it is the only one included in positional transmissions. Since it’s the magic number that helps identify vessels in AIS tracking, ships fiddle with it to hide their location or dodgy activities. But there can also be more innocent explanations.
Like mobile phone numbers, there are a finite number of MMSIs: when a customer casts aside their mobile phone number, the provider recycles the number to someone else; flag registries – especially major ones, like Panama – do the same with MMSIs. That means different ships can, at different moments in time, have the same MMSI. Yet if a vessel keeps transmitting its former ID – through omission or by design – it can appear that two ships have the same MMSI at the same time – making it extremely complicated to distinguish between them through simple AIS tracking.
That’s what happened with the MARSHAL Z and UNIVERSE HONESTY. The latter has of late been loitering in the Sea of Japan, transmitting the MMSI number it acquired in August 2019. Yet the MARSHAL Z has continued reporting this MMSI, even though it no longer owns it.
How can you tell the difference? The short answer is maritime expertise: only by understanding the context of the vessel type, its location, its usual areas of operations and the like, and how these jar with what you appear to be seeing on screen, is it possible to spot something isn’t quite right. With the right data sources, fusion of that data and AI algorithms we can automatically see which ship is which – and avoid making important decisions based on false information.
When we started writing this story it seemed a clear cut case of mistaken identity for the MARSHAL Z. Yes, it had breached sanctions (on Syria) in the past, but on this occasion, it was innocent. We can still say with certainty that it’s not helping North Korea evade sanctions, but the MARSHAL Z is no angel: on December 28, it changed its name to ROMINA, and it’s flag to…Iran.