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Pirate attacks on ships decrease as companies increase security

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Piracy is one of the world’s oldest crimes and, despite some potentially encouraging statistics, maritime security analysts say it will never go away.

Last month, the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau said global piracy last year had reached its lowest levels since 1998, but added that more crews were kidnapped at sea in 2016 than in any of the previous 10 years.

The London-based bureau recorded 191 incidents of piracy and armed robbery on the world’s seas in 2016, and pirates kidnapped 62 people for ransom in 15 separate incidents. Slightly more than half were captured off West Africa, the bureau said, while 28 were kidnapped from tugs, barges, fishing boats and, more recently, merchant ships around Malaysia and Indonesia.

“We’ve seen a reduction in the amount of attacks,” said Phillip Cable, CEO of maritime security firm Maritime Asset Security & Training (MAST) Ltd. in Stanstead, England. “But I think the view of the intelligence community is that the apparatus of piracy very much remains intact, and the conditions that started it all in the first place still exist. The criminality still exists, but the deterrent, that being the security presence, is kind of keeping it at bay.” 

Piracy, Mr. Cable added, “is as old as ships,” and he warned that in light of the decreasing number of attacks, some shipping companies might view security as an expense they can do without.

“There’s an oversupply of tonnage, and fundamentally you can’t run a ship if you’re not making any money,” he said.

“Sometimes security is the first thing to go because if there isn’t an incident for a year, people will think, ‘Oh, we’ll be okay.’ So it’s the first thing that goes.” Unfortunately, Mr. Cable said, cutting back on security is a risk that some people think is worth taking.

“They have insurance,” he said, “they consider the risk is remote, and they’ll decide not to take any physical security and just let the crew deal with it. It really depends upon the attitude of the shipowner.” Peter Cook, a founding director of security consulting firm PCA Maritime Ltd.

in London, said there were numerous incidents off the coast of Somalia and the northwestern Indian Ocean between about 2008 and 2012.

“And whilst the threat of that hasn’t gone by any means, it has been significantly reduced,” he said. “But we continue to have a lot of piracy and robbery at sea in the Gulf of Guinea and currently in the South China Sea, and there is an increasing amount of activity going on in the northern end of South America as well.” 

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Mr. Cook was the CEO from 2012-14 of the Security Association for the Maritime Industry, and he worked with Marsh Ltd. to formulate a bespoke insurance package for private maritime security companies called the “SAMI Facility.”

He attributed the reduction of piracy to a “three-legged stool” of the combined efforts of several of the world’s navies; a system of defensive procedures on ships known as Best Management Practices that includes security measures such as the use of fire hoses and barbed wire barricades on ships; and the introduction of armed security guards on ships.

“That was really the thing that changed,” Mr. Cook said, noting that 30% to 35% of ships transiting the high-risk area of the Indian Ocean have guards. “Because whilst a pirate could manage to get through the barbed wire, if they discovered there were armed guards on board, the likelihood of them going on board was next to nil.” 

Stefano Costanzi, Washington-based publisher of The Costanzi Report on Piracy and Maritime Security, also cited the importance of having armed security guards on ships in the West Indian Ocean.

“I do believe the fact that the deployment of armed security guards in the area has significantly contributed to curbing the attacks,” he said. “If you think about it, in the West Indian Ocean, piracy has gone down, but it has not gone down as much in the Gulf of Guinea or in Southeast Asia.” 

Mr. Costanzi noted that private armed security guards are not permitted in the territorial waters by several states in the Gulf of Guinea. Armed security guards are also a problem in Southeast Asia, he said, because ships pass through the territorial waters of several countries, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia.

“So I would think in the area where armed security guards were deployed, meaning the West Indian Ocean,” he said, “we’re seeing a dramatic effect on piracy.

Cutting back on that is probably not a good idea. The oceans are vast and difficult to patrol. It’s difficult for naval forces to be everywhere.”

None of the analysts said they expect piracy to disappear anytime soon as the various trouble spots remain troubled by poverty, corruption and political instability.

“As long as people trade by sea,” Mr. Cook said, “there will be somebody that will commit crime in order to get stuff, whether it be smuggling or committing piracy or whatever. There’s always a criminal around. That’s human nature.”