Map illustrates suspicious cargo ship’s route from the Mediterranean to Islay
Politicians have called for police to investigate so-called ghost ships which turned off their tracking devices in Scottish waters.
Three vessels have made unexplained stops off the isle of Islay since the start of the year. Two switched off their automatic identification systems (AIS).
Maritime analysts raised concerns about the ships’ behaviour, describing the decision to “go dark” near the Hebridean island as reckless and illegal.
The activity is associated with vessels unloading illicit cargo such as drugs and guns to smaller boats. They also switch off their GPS while people trafficking.
Argyll & Bute MSP Mike Russell vowed to raise the issue with Police Scotland Chief Constable Phil Gormley.
Last night, he said: “This requires investigation, certainly by the police and, I suspect, by the security authorities to clarify what’s going on. The information should be passed to police and the Maritime & Coastguard Agency. There may be a legitimate explanation but I would be worried if there was any indication of illegal activity being undertaken in the waters around Scotland.”
Argyll & Bute MP Brendan O’Hara spoke about the issue in the Commons last week.
He said: “I’ll be writing to the MoD and the Maritime & Coastguard Agency about how often this kind of activity happens and the sanctions taken against ship owners who do this.
“I also want to find out, had this been a more serious security threat, where the nearest Royal Navy or coastguard vessel was and how long would it have taken to get there.”
Global maritime firm Windward, who monitor vessels’ movements, revealed 245 vessels with “suspicious” gaps in tracking data entered the UK in the first two months of 2017.
They uncovered evidence a Cyprus-registered cargo ship turned off its GPS at points in its journey before stopping about a mile off Islay for 11 hours on January 14.
The Russian-owned ship also turned off its AIS for 28 hours while it was in the port of Oran in Algeria – a region notorious for people trafficking and the smuggling of arms and drugs.
Windward found a vessel travelling under the flag of Gibraltar stopped at Islay, which is about 25 miles north of the Irish coast, for 38 hours on January 10.
The 35-year-old ship deviated suspiciously from its trading route, although it didn’t turn its tracking off.
A third ship, which anchored off the coast for 10 hours on February 19, wasn’t registered by the International Maritime Organization, something experts say makes it easier for smugglers to operate.
The ship turned off transmissions between January 25 and February 7, then again for 13 days. The vessels moored at Claggain Bay, on the south of the island.
A local fisherman said: “There’s an anchorage there and the boats may be innocent and sheltering from the weather. But it’s a good spot if you were smuggling things ashore.”
Windward’s data is used by security agencies. Chief executive Ami Daniel said the behaviour was “suspicious”.
He said: “I don’t see any reason for it to be there. There are no major ports in the area. Sometimes ships will find shelter because of bad weather rather than risk storms. But it could have been there to drop something off – it’s unusual activity.”
He said the fact one vessel was 35 years old heightened suspicions, as aged vessels were more likely to be used for smuggling and the ship’s low height also made it easier to offload things to other boats.
He said a ship usually turns off AIS because it “doesn’t want attention”.
This month, Europol said there were 500 people-smuggling gangs.
Last August, the Home Affairs Select Committee warned the UK Border Force have a “worryingly low” number of patrol boats despite being given a key role in heightened security arrangements
A Maritime & Coastguard Agency spokesman said they monitor vessels’ movements. He added: “Any suspicious activity recognised would be passed on to the appropriate authorities.”
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “Border Force monitor vessels sailing off our coastline for suspicious behaviour, including the disruption of AIS. In 2015, a vessel carrying more than three tons of cocaine was detected despite turning off its AIS system.”