It’s Tuesday morning, and Phillip Belcher pauses anxiously before opening an email. The subject line reads: “Vessel under attack at this moment.” He clicks through to the bleak description that notes a ship is under attack by a skiff, or small boat — and under fire. “Nobody attempted to board vessel yet,” the message continues, “but the crew is afraid that it may happen.” From Belcher’s office in central London, there is little he can do for those seamen besides hope for the best.
As marine director of the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, which represents oil tankers from 40 countries, Belcher is getting used to receiving alerts about ongoing pirate attacks. But they don’t come from the famously pirate-friendly coast of war-torn Somalia. Instead, they’re increasingly being sent from the shores of Africa’s wealthiest country: Nigeria. Last year alone, 49 boats were attacked and 37 crew kidnapped in these waters, whereas Somalia saw only one attack, and no hostages were taken.
Over the past decade, most talk of piracy seemed to lead back to East Africa. And for good reason: The international overexploitation of local fishing stock and lack of law enforcement had helped turn the failed state of Somalia into a pirate’s paradise; since 2005, more than 500 vessels were attacked by pirates in the area. But now, thanks to increased security measures— including armed guards on board — and international naval patrols, the tide has changed. As the number of incidents comes down on Africa’s east coast, it is rising in the Gulf of Guinea, which has a coastline of about 3,420 miles, roughly the size of the Gulf of Mexico.
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