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A new study of global maritime piracy has revealed new threats to ships and their crews ‒ and has prompted warnings for seafarers to remain vigilant against potential attacks…Andrew Linington reports.
Seafarers and shipowners have been warned against relaxing their counter-piracy precautions following new evidence showing that the risk of attack remains high in many parts of the world.
The eighth annual Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP) report, produced by the US-based One Earth Future (OEF) organisation, reveals that more than 5,000 seafarers were affected by a total of 321 piracy incidents around the world last year, with 17 crew members killed in Asia and two killed off West Africa.
The report notes a big increase in incidents in Latin America and the Caribbean, and it says that 'persistently high' levels of attacks off West Africa have made the Gulf of Guinea the most dangerous region in Africa for seafarers.
It also warns that while attacks declined in Asia for the third year in a row, incidents off the Horn of Africa doubled last year, and conflict in Yemen is exposing ships and their crews to a growing threat in the Red Sea.
Maisie Pigeon, the report's lead author, said a flurry of incidents off Somalia over the past year 'clearly demonstrates that pirate groups retain their ability to organise and implement attacks against ships transiting the region'.
However, OBP said it did not believe that there is evidence to show 'the re-emergence of largescale piracy in the Horn of Africa'.
The report said the number of incidents off East Africa increased to 54 last year, with the 'short surge' of hijackings in the first quarter – including the first involving a merchant ship for five years – in part resulting from lessened adherence to ship self-protection measures' and a reduction in the levels of naval force deployment in the region.
OBP researchers found a 13% reduction in the use of private security teams on ships off East Africa last year and experts at the meeting said there has been a marked fall in the number of ships using armed guards in high-risk areas – down to less than half of vessels transiting the Gulf of Aden and only 15% to 20% of those in the Indian Ocean.
Incidents off the Horn of Africa doubled last year, according to the new Oceans Beyond Piracy analysis.
However, Simon Church, of the Maritime Security Centre-Horn of Africa, said levels of compliance with Best Management Practices (BMP) remain 'fairly good considering the perception of risk is not what it was'.
Alan Cole, head of the United Nations Office of Drugs & Crime maritime programme, said armed guards on merchant ships are the most effective deterrent. 'Pirates have told us that if they see private security onboard they will back off and not attack.'
OBP researchers estimate global economic costs of piracy at more than US$2.2bn last year, with international naval activities off East Africa totalling almost $200m and owners spending more than $500,000 on maritime security services.
The OBP report notes that four dhows and a bunker tanker were hijacked off Somalia in the first half of 2017, but points out that 'the success rate of these hijackings in terms of ransom payments was low due to the interception of pirate groups on land by local authorities; the implementation of BMP4 by crews; as well as the successful capture of pirates by naval forces.
Major Tom Mobbs, head of intelligence and security with the EU Naval Force counter-piracy operation, said the threat not only continues off Somalia, but there is also a growing risk of mines and improved explosive devices for vessels in the southern Red Sea. The coalition presence in the area is being stepped up as a result of incidents off Yemen which appear to be targeting ships with links to Saudi Arabia, he added.
Recent incidents include a missile attack on the Gibraltar-flagged supply ship VOS Theai – operating on charter to the United Nations World Food Programme – as well as the Turkish-flagged bulk carrier Ince Inebolu, and a Saudi-flagged tanker off Hodeidah, Yemen.
'There are now a wide range of threats to shipping near the Horn of Africa that have been complicated by the conflict and instability in Yemen,' said Intertanko marine director Phil Belcher. 'We are advising our members to consider a more comprehensive security assessment to take into account other threats beyond traditional piracy emanating from the regional conflict in Yemen.'
EU Navfor's Operation Atalanta remit is being extended beyond 2018, for a further two years, although the command centre is to shift from the UK as a result of Brexit, the meeting heard.
Ms Pigeon said that while violent acts of piracy had declined overall, incidents off West Africa have become increasingly violent – affecting more than 1,700 seafarers last year, and with a total of 317 kidnappings – mainly involving masters and officers.
Incidents in the Latin America and Caribbean region had increased by 160%, she added, with the opportunistic nature of attacks illustrated by the fact that most involve robbery from ships at anchor. Many of the 71 incidents occurred off Venezuela, with 42 of the incidents involving yachts and 16 involving tankers.
A 23% reduction in incidents in SE Asia was put down to the success of trilateral patrols introduced by authorities in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia following a spate of very violent robberies, kidnappings and hijacks in previous years, she said. Kidnap-for-ransom incidents in the region decreased by 80% over the year.
OBP said more should be done to tackle the root causes of piracy around the world, warning that the problem is a 'crime of opportunity' which is often linked to the fishing industry – with illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing wrecking local fleets in many countries and leading unemployed fishermen to be recruited into piracy, as well as being frequent victims of attacks and kidnapping in areas such as Bangladesh and the Gulf of Guinea.
Mr Cole said maritime crime has a hugely destabilising effect on many countries, and a longterm, comprehensive approach is needed to address it.
However, OBP warned that this will only work if there are strong and stable governments with the ability to deny safe havens to pirates and to prosecute those caught carrying out attacks.
Top image: A boarding team from the Spanish EU Naval Force warship ESPS Rayo intercepts a suspicious skiff. Image: EU Naval Force