Two panamax bulkers controlled by a Ningbo shipowner have been idle since the beginning of June in what observers believe is a complication from China's controversial sea sand trade.

The Ningbo Hezhong Shipping vessels have stood at anchor fully laden since the first week of June.

Both ships had just proceeded from the shallow sand banks of the Taiwan Strait, which they had visited with AIS signals switched off before proceeding to the intended discharge port of Guangzhou.

Lucrative trade

Hezhong, also known as Ningbo United, is one of a number of Chinese domestic owners of tonnage up to post-panamax size that participates in the lucrative but legally uncertain trade carrying freshly dredged sea sand from the Taiwan Strait to a number of mainland destinations.

Ningbo-based owners with veteran tonnage are especially active in supplementing the pure north-to-south coal trade with backhaul voyages carrying sand to land reclamation projects — and increasingly often to new facilities that wash sand for use in construction.

TradeWinds reported last year on the sea sand trade, which has made the recently lacklustre Chinese domestic market lucrative for some shipowners but which other shipowners avoid as a legally risky "grey area".

Sea sand is unloaded from the small coastal ship Zhe Jiao Ji 506 on the last stage of its voyage at a makeshift terminal along the Huangpu River in Shanghai Photo: Bob Rust

However, since May, apparent numbers of bulkers calling at the sand banks have drastically fallen off. Closer investigation indicates that many previous participants are continuing to call, but switching off AIS transponders for the duration of their stay.

TradeWinds has learned that Hezhong's 75,000-dwt Jin Ning 77 (ex-Poseidon, built 2002) has been idle at the upriver harbour anchorage at Dongguan, south of Guangzhou on the Pearl River, since 3 June, reporting its draught as a fully laden 13.8 metres.

'Went dark'

After delivering a Qinhuangdao cargo to the south-eastern port of Xiamen, the Jin Ning 77 "went dark" — turned off its AIS — upon leaving Xiamen on 29 May. The ship reappeared on the VesselsValue tracking map two days later, after passing through the mid-strait area east of Shantou, where unlicensed offshore dredgers are active.

Since arriving at Dongguan, the ship has remained at anchor posting hourly AIS reports.

A few days after the Jin Ning 77, on 7 June, its fleet-mate the 72,900-dwt Jin Ning 17 (built 1999) arrived at Putuowan anchorage south of Hong Kong, but also with Dongguan up the Pearl River listed as its intended destination. Ship tracking websites show the vessel is still at Putuowan as of writing, reporting a laden draught of 13.5 metres.

The Jin Ning 17 "went dark" while visiting the Shantou sand area three times in May.

Maritime law enforcement officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Hezhong officials had not responded to enquiries before TradeWinds went to press.

But sources with insight into the Ningbo shipowning world doubt that Hezhong's ships have been idled by any financial problems. Most of the ageing ships that have gone to such owners in recent years are bought for cash, as banks see little incentive to finance assets that offer so little security in case of default.

Policy issues related to sand trading are thought more likely to be the issue, as China has a conflicted set of environmental priorities that make marine regulation tricky to predict.