Maritime Piracy Is Down, But Expert Warns Against Complaceny

Robert Bowman, Contributor

Worldwide incidents of maritime piracy are on the decline, but ship operators shouldn’t assume that the problem has been put to rest, warned an expert with the International Chamber of Commerce.

The release of the movie Captain Phillips, about the hijacking of the containership Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia in 2009, has raised public awareness of the piracy threat. Yet piracy in the first three quarters of this year was at its lowest level since 2006, according to ICC’s International Maritime Bureau, which tracks maritime crime.

IMB assistant director Cyrus Mody said there have been 11 reported attacks in the East Africa/Somalia region so far in 2013. Only two were successful, and both involved fishing vessels that were released within a short period of time. By contrast, there were 219 incidents, including 42 successful hijackings, in 2010.

The decline is likely due to a combination of factors, including the presence in the area of naval patrols, armed security teams aboard ships, operators complying with “best management practices” to prevent being illegally boarded, and the beginnings of political stability in Somalia.

Piracy remains a problem in the Gulf of Guinea and other parts of West Africa. The region saw more than 40 attacks in the first nine months of 2013, IMB reports, with 132 crew members taken hostage and seven vessels hijacked. Nigeria is currently the area’s main source of piracy — only last week, two merchant seamen were abducted from a U.S. supply vessel off the Nigerian coast.

Southeast Asia has seen a number of “very low-level events,” occurring mostly on vessels that were at anchor, Mody said. Incidents in that region have risen sharply in 2013, although it’s too early to tell whether they represent a trend, he said.

Vessels sailing off the Somali coast have sharpened their compliance with a 95-page document entitled “Best Management Practices for Protection Against Somalia-Based Piracy.” Known as BMP4, it is a series of recommendations drawn up by multiple organizations representing international shipping interests, including IMB. Prescribed measures include speeding up the ship to outrun the pirates’ craft, deploying water cannons, engaging in proper lookout procedures, and installing barbed wire at points of entry.

The use of violence is a sensitive issue. When the number of piracy attacks began to mount off Somalia, industry experts urged shipowners to restrict themselves to non-lethal measures. The defensive use of weapons “is neither a proportionate response nor a sustainable long-term solution,” said Rick Filon, maritime director of the intelligence agency AKE Ltd. ”Further, the simple presence of arms on board may even lead to an escalation of violence.”

Now, however, it appears that the threat of force, both from international navies and on-board security teams, has had a key role in curbing acts of piracy. The multinational naval group known as Combined Maritime Forces 151 has been patrolling the Somali Basin and Gulf of Aden. In addition, an increasing number of ships are hiring armed guards to repel attacks.

Following a couple of recent attempted boardings in the Indian Ocean, the navies “went out and identified this pirate action group and removed it from the water,” Mody said. And, of the 11 attacks to occur in the area this year, the two boats that were taken were the only ones without armed teams on board. “It would appear that a number of vessels are arming themselves, which is probably good,” he said.

While the security teams have had a positive effect, they raise some unanswered questions about liability in the event that an innocent individual is injured or killed. In additions, some countries are uneasy about the presence of weapons aboard ships passing through their territorial waters. Earlier this month, Indian police arrested the crew of a U.S.-owned freighter that was carrying unregistered weapons and ammunition.

India “is extremely careful of what comes into [its] waters, and rightly so,” said Mody. “I don’t think that the U.S. or European countries would let a vessel like that come within a hundred miles.” The solution, he added, lies in governments coming together to regulate the carriage of defensive weapons.

The Maersk Alabama was boarded despite deploying non-lethal measures recommended by BMP4. But Mody said shipowners have improved their defensive responses since that time. “I don’t believe that any vessel that has used best management practices has been taken successfully,” he said. The attack on the Maersk came at a time when industry and international navies “were still on a very fast and steep learning curve on the best ways of defending against it.”

In any case, Mody said, ships moving through dangerous seas can’t afford to let down their guard. Neither navies nor individual security teams can protect every vessel that is at risk. And while Somalia recently underwent its first presidential election in more than 20 years, the country is far from achieving the political stability that is needed to halt attacks staged from within its borders. Said Mody: “It’s far too early to be complacent.”


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