ON MAY 10th¬†pirate-busters celebrated the fact that¬†one year had passed¬†since a ship was successfully seized by Somali hijackers. Pirates have been attacking vessels passing the Horn of Africa since at least 2005, when they received a $315,000 ransom for¬†Feisty Gas, a ship owned by a company in Hong Kong. Since then, payments have risen continuously, reaching a high last year of $9.5m for the¬†Smyrni, a Greek tanker, and her crew of 26. But since its capture on May 10th 2012, the pirates have not hijacked any more vessels. Why are the pirates at bay?
Though the¬†spoils are rising, pirate attacks have been falling off. Just 75 attacks took place in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia in 2012, down from more than 200 in 2011. Currently, 71 sailors are being held hostage by pirates, according to the International Maritime Bureau, a body that monitors crime at sea; in early 2011, the figure was 758. Estimates for how much Somali piracy has cost the world economy range from $7 billion to$18 billion, the latest estimate by the World Bank. One theory is that the¬†pirates have spent the past few months stock-taking, clearing their stock of hostages and ships before restarting their campaign. Another possibility is that their business model is shifting towards kidnapping foreign aid-workers and¬†tourists¬†on land.
But the main reason for the drop in maritime hijackings seems to be that ships are now far better defended against attacks.¬†Armed guards, now carried by more than 60% of vessels, have been essential in discouraging them. Pirates are playing it safe by first scouting for guards, whereas previously they opened fire to intimidate crews; seeing arms on board is a big deterrent. Higher cruising speeds in pirate-infested zones and rerouting also have helped, as have razor wire, high-pressure hoses and citadels‚Äîsecure spaces on ships from which crews can call for reinforcements. (This makes it easier to come to the aid of ships under attack, because pirates can no longer use seafarers as human shields.) Navies patrolling the area, from EU task-forces to¬†private motherships, are alsp co-operating better and acting more aggressively.
All these gains are ‚Äúfragile and reversible‚Äù, says Jon Huggins, director of Oceans Beyond Piracy, a lobby group. The EU and NATO navy mandates expire at the end of 2014. Defensive measures, particularly higher speeds and armed guards, are expensive. Suppression at sea needs to be combined with better onshore government and deterrence, both sorely lacking. Safe havens, such as Kenya and the Seychelles, have worked hard to drive pirates out or into prisons; yet¬†war-torn Somalia is still an ideal cover. Mr Huggins warns that the pirate gangs are still intact and are waiting for their next opportunity. Their activities usually wane from May to September during the rough seas of the monsoon season, but they could still stage an autumn comeback.