Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC,has issued a notice warning its clients and other stakeholders that the Nigerian Navy will investigate, and will arrest ships that switch off their Automatic Identification system, AIS, when operating in Nigerian waters. It further reminds masters of their obligations under SOLAS Reg.V/19 to maintain their AIS in operation at all times, when underway or at anchor. The NNPC notice can be viewed here.
AIS as a safety measure
The objective of AIS is, according to the IMO, to enhance the safety of life at sea, the safety and efficiency of navigation and the protection of the marine environment. By providing information about the ship to other ships and to coastal authorities automatically, the system can be used to assist in collision avoidance decision-making, target tracking, search and rescue operations, etc. In general, data received via AIS will improve the quality of the information available to the officer on the watch (OOW), whether at a shore surveillance station or onboard a ship.
AIS as an anti-piracy measure
AIS is a two-way street when it comes to piracy. While information broadcasts through AIS will enhance safety and situational awareness, the same information could easily be collected by pirates and used to spot ships coming within range. Pirates could even look at the ship information to see whether valuable cargos are being carried. Because of this security concern, the IMO amended its AIS guidelines in 2003 to allow ship masters to switch off the AIS in specific areas where the threat of attack by piracy or terrorists are imminent. However, even if switching off the AIS under such circumstances may seem like a sensible precaution, it is not considered as a best management practice (BMP) to prevent piracy attacks.
Looking to recognised industry guidances, such as the "Global Counter Piracy Guidance for Companies, Masters and Seafarers", and the "Best Management Practices to Deter Piracy and Enhance Maritime Security off the Coast of West Africa including the Gulf of Guinea", the general recommendation is to maintain the AIS switched on when operating in piracy prone areas. More specifically, ships are advised to leave their AIS transmission on throughout any and all areas of risk but configure it to transmit only restricted data, such as the ship's identity, position, course, speed, navigational status and safety-related information. Maintaining the AIS switched on throughout passages in voluntary reporting areas (VRA) will also ensure that reporting centres and militaries can track the ship and provide early assistance in the event of a suspicious approach or attack.