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Piracy on the Decline: Will it Last?

July 18, 2012


For the past several years, maritime piracy has received a lot attention in the press. The geographic area that has received the most attention is the area off of the Horn of Africa. The reason, of course, is that Somalia has been the epicenter of pirate activity. Ocean carriers and shippers are concerned about piracy because the nefarious activities of these criminals cost time, money, and, too often, lives. According to Ron Widdows, group president of Neptune Orient Lines and chairman of the World Shipping Council, “Maritime piracy costs the global shipping industry anywhere from $3.5 billion to upwards of $8 billion a year.” [“Piracy Costs Shipping Industry Billions,” by Peter T. Leach, Journal of Commerce, 19 April 2011]


One of the reasons that piracy has garnered so much attention is that the incidents of piracy have been steadily on the rise. For example, Leach reported, “The International Maritime Bureau said worldwide pirate attacks in the first three months of 2011 reached the highest quarterly number ever at 142.” He continued:

“The sharp rise was driven by a surge in piracy off the coast of Somalia, where 97 attacks were recorded in the first quarter of 2011, up from 35 in the same period last year. The Somali transitional government’s foreign minister Mohammed Abdulahi Omar Asharq told the counter-piracy conference that the world is losing the battle against piracy. ‘The race between the pirates and the world is being won by the pirates,’ he said. Asharq said the solution to piracy lies on land, not at sea. ‘Consequently the status quo view that manages acts of piracy is no longer a viable strategy. It is equally clear that piracy can only be uprooted on land, where it grows and persists,’ Asharq said, appealing for international aid. ‘The international community must make the urgent and necessary investment in the Somali security forces to build up the capability of the state and to establish its national authority.”

Jump forward a year to March 2012 and one could only conclude that the international community’s war against piracy was failing. In that month, “ten ships were hijacked by Somali pirates, … making this the most attacks in one month since December 2010.” [“Somali Pirate Activity Reaches 15-Month High,” The Maritime Executive, 5 April 2012] The article continues:

“According to Bloomberg, pirate gangs may also be moving to attack larger merchant vessels. … Four of the seized ships were used to make more attacks, rather than the usual holding for ransom acts. Maritime security experts believe that pirate groups will be encouraged by the latest hijackings and will be moved on organizing more attacks. … A recent study done by One Earth Future Foundation showed that Somali pirate attacks rose to a record 237 in 2011, with ransoms worth $160 million paid to release 31 hijacked vessels. It also reported that pirates based in Somalia cost governments and the shipping industry as much as $6.9 billion last year. Currently, sea pirates have 13 vessels detained with 197 crewmen taken as hostages, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).”

Based on that depressing start to the year, it comes as a surprise to learn that “antipiracy efforts helped slash attacks by a third in the first half of this year, though an alarming increase in incidents in the Gulf of Guinea helped offset declines in the major piracy hot spot offshore of Somalia, the International Maritime Bureau said.” [“Antipiracy Efforts Cut Attacks By a Third,” by Sarah Kent, Wall Street Journal, 16 July 2012] Kent continues:

“According to a quarterly report published by the International Chamber of Commerce’s piracy watchdog, 177 incidents of piracy were reported in the first six months of the year, down from 266 in the same period in 2011, with the decrease largely the result of a drop in Somali piracy. The IMB attributed the decline in pirate activity in the region to efforts by international navies to disrupt piracy as well as the successful implementation of antipiracy measures by shipowners.”

Sandra I. Erwin reports, “Security firms have rushed to capitalize on the shipping industry’s rising fear of pirates. Approximately 200 to 300 companies today specialize in protecting commercial ships and oil tankers from pirates. At least half these firms are based in the United Kingdom.” [“Security Firms Divided Over How to Succeed in the Anti-Piracy Business,” National Defense, August 2012 issue] Michael G. Frodl, head of the consulting firm C-LEVEL Maritime Risks, told Irwin that “hiring armed crews today is the most economical option for shippers because there is so much competition for the business. … Guards can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000 for a 10-day trip.” Although current strategies seem to be working, Erwin notes that the maritime industry remains unsure of the best strategies to combat piracy. She explains that “the cost of security is becoming an unaffordable burden” for shipping lines that are already operating on razor-thin margins. “Ships can choose to take detours to avoid the more dangerous waters,” she writes, “but that drives up fuel costs.” Most carriers understand, however, that “some type of security aboard is a must for any ship that transits the waters off East Africa, the Persian Gulf and the North Indian Ocean.”


Most stakeholders, it appears, believe that public/private collaboration is required to tackle the piracy problem. Thomas P. Kelly Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, told a conference in Dubai, “The United States supports a multilateral approach that views piracy as a shared challenge. Piracy is most effectively addressed through broad, coordinated, and comprehensive international efforts. We consider the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia essential in enabling interaction between states and regional and international organizations on piracy.” [“A Shared Approach for Shared Challenges,” Press Release: US State Department, Scoop Independent News, 11 July 2012] Although these combined efforts seem to be working, the question remains: Will these latest results prove lasting? As noted above, Kent reported “that the drop in Somali piracy was offset by a ‘disproportionate’ increase in activity around the Gulf of Guinea, where 32 incidents were reported in 2012 compare to 25 in 2011. … Attacks in this region were becoming increasingly violent, with guns reported in at least 20 of the 32 incidences.” She continues:

“The news comes as the European Union announced plans to launch a fresh mission in the Horn of Africa to fight piracy and instability in the region. The mission, which will get up and running in the autumn, is designed to wipe out ‘the scourge of piracy,’ the EU’s foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement. It is part of the bloc’s more aggressive crackdown on suspected pirates, and comes after the EU’s antipiracy force launched their first airstrikes on a pirate camp in mainland Somalia in May.”

I suspect that ground operations in Somalia are main reason that piracy attacks from that country have diminished. As Kelly told the Dubai conference, “The only long-term solution to piracy is the re-establishment of stability, responsive law enforcement, and adequate governance in Somalia.” Doug Brooks, president of the International Stability Operations Association, agrees. He told Erwin, “Ultimately, the solutions to piracy are ‘land based’.” Kent concludes:

“‘Any lessening in the international commitment is likely to be followed by a renewed upsurge in pirate activity and greatly increased risks to international shipping,’ said Ben Payton, Africa analyst at Maplecroft, a risk analyst company. ‘Indeed, international naval efforts have dispersed the problem, rather than solved it. The naval presence off the Somali coast has encouraged more sophisticated pirates to move south, meaning that despite the reduction in overall attacks, operators are exposed to risks over a much wider area,’ he added, noting that investors expanding into the offshore gas industries in Tanzania and Mozambique could be particularly vulnerable.”

I agree with Payton that now is no time to let up on efforts to decrease the threat from piracy. The sooner it can be dramatically reduced the safer the seas will be for everyone. Eventually, stakeholders will come to the conclusion that the symptoms of piracy are found at sea but the cure for it is found ashore.

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