Spontaneous anchorage in Estonian waters could pose environmental threat

Cluster of ships in the Gulf of Finland north of Loksa, Estonia. Red icons represent tankers and green icons represent cargo ships.
Cluster of ships in the Gulf of Finland north of Loksa, Estonia. Red icons represent tankers and green icons represent cargo ships. Source: screenshot/Marinetraffic

A spontaneous anchorage has cropped up in Estonia's exclusive economic zone off the coast north of Loksa, where dozens of tankers and cargo ships a day bound for Russia end up idling. Experts believe such a large congregation of ships poses a risk of environmental pollution.

According to Jaak Viilipus, director of the Ministry of Climate's Maritime Department, the anchorage has sprung up because Russian ports at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland cannot accommodate all of the incoming ships, which is why they end up waiting their turn to enter port in the closest safe waters.

"The eastern end of the Gulf of Finland is fairly shallow, which is why the closest bigger free areas are the waters located north of Loksa," Viilipus told ERR.

The ministry official said that Russia had already banned ships from entering its waters years ago, as apparently even then it wasn't possible to accommodate them. Since sanctions were imposed, demand has increased even more.

"It's also understandable from a safety perspective why no one wants to leave a ship stopped between islands and in shallow water," he acknowledged. "We also have to bear in mind that even if these ships didn't anchor, they would pass the time sailing around, so that would mean greater risks."

The tankers and cargo ships cannot be forced to leave, as this involves the international law of the sea, and Estonia cannot limit another country's sovereignty.

"As a rule, all of the ships anchored there today are [sailing] under the flags of third countries," Viilipus explained. "Should Estonia restrict anyone's rights, then it would be treated not as action against Russia, but rather an attack on the flag state."

He also noted that ad hoc anchorages such as this one aren't an extraordinary phenomenon either. "Right now we can observe such congregations off the coast of Spain, Greece, Malta and the Canaries, for example," he said.

"[Ships] typically wait their turn to enter port in a roadstead," Viilipus explained. "A stopping point has cropped up specifically in Estonia's economic zone because it's geographically the most suitable spot in terms of depth, how protected the location is as well as distance to Russia's ports."

Risk of collision

Speaking to ERR, Marti Kose, chief pollution control specialist for the Estonian Navy, said that the biggest risks involved right now are either the malicious discharge of oily wash residues from ships' cargo holds or the spillage of oil products into the sea due to technical failures on the ships. Anchoring too close to one another could cause problems as well.

"Given that the ships are anchored relatively close together and close to a very busy sea route, ship collisions due to navigational errors, technical failures or severe weather conditions cannot be ruled out," Kose warned.

He also pointed out that several historical shipwrecks are located in the vicinity, whose fuel tanks could be damaged and start leaking.

On the other hand, he highlighted, the ships in question are awaiting loading in Russia, meaning their tanks and containers are currently empty and they are only carrying fuel and lubricants needed for their own motors.

Estonian Maritime Academy director Roomet Leiger pointed out that the cargo ships may actually pose an even bigger risk than the tankers.

"Tankers have tougher safety standards and better ensured security," Leiger told ERR. "On top of tankers, vessels such as bulk carriers and container ships are anchoring in this area as well. When space is tight, such ships tend to anchor too close to one another sometimes, because they have weaker safety standards."

According to the academy director, both tanker crews and shore-based vessel traffic services (VTS) operators monitor for safe distances.

"The idea is that ships are kept a sufficiently safe distance from one another, as the main risk is a ship drifting at anchor," he said, explaining that this happens mainly because the majority of these ships are traveling empty, the water is deep and the seafloor unexplored. As a result, anchors may not hold in conditions of strong winds or wind gusts.

"In a situation like that, if the ship's crew is unable to immediately start the ship's main engines and establish [its] steerability, incidents could occur where ships come dangerously close to one another and could collide," Leiger warned.

Ministry: The risks are mitigated

According to Viilipus, maritime transport is internationally regulated, and Estonia is party to the Paris Memorandum of Understanding (Paris MoU) on Port State Control. This means that vessels' risk profiles are continuously assessed, and the number of inspections to be carried out per ship is determined accordingly.

"Ships in poor technical condition are blacklisted, and they are barred from entry to port," he said. "In addition, ships must also periodically undergo mandatory inspections and certifications via their flag state or ship classification society. Thus technical monitoring is operational, and the risks are mitigated as a result."

The ministry official did admit, however, that the potential for malicious or criminal activity cannot be ruled out, such as deliberately breaking rules and dumping waste, for example.

"It's the same as with driving cars — most of us wouldn't throw trash out the window and will throw it away at an appropriate place," he said. "It's the same with ships, i.e. there's always someone who may want to maliciously do something illegal. But these are isolated cases."

To mitigate the risks, the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), the Navy and the Transport Administration are conducting surveillance of the anchorage area.

"A Navy patrol ship, PPA plane and a Finnish plane visit the site," Viilipus said. "Surveillance is also being conducted via satellite. Physical checks of activities in maritime areas is the responsibility of the Ministry of Defense, including pollution control."

According to Kose, there are monitoring systems located on the nearby island of Vaindloo that allow for Estonian authorities to keep tabs on ships in the ad hoc anchorage via their automatic identification system (AIS) signals, as well as on the area in general.

"European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) satellite info facilitates broad maritime oil surveillance, and PPA and Finnish border guard surveillance planes' patrol flights ensure synchronized oil surveillance," he said, adding that they can also employ an EMSA maritime surveillance drone.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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