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LONDON (Reuters)—Maritime security firms have come together to create a code of conduct and ethics, prompted by alarm over the rising number of companies without seaborne experience aiming to cash in on the surge in Somali piracy.
Increasingly violent attacks on merchant ships and crews by Somali gangs have led more ship owners to consider deploying private security teams on board vessels, attracting companies previously operating in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There are literally hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan 'expatriates' setting up shop, never having been aboard a ship before, much less knowing how to defend it," said John Dalby of security company Marine Risk Management.
"We have fears that a glut of inexperienced and unqualified so-called maritime security operators are bringing the legit guys into disrepute."
Mr. Dalby is one of the founders of the International Assn. of Maritime Security Professionals (IAMSP), a self-regulated, voluntary body seeking more transparency in the sector. Its code of conduct includes ensuring members are properly trained, abide by laws and regulations where they operate, act ethically and do not accept bribes.
"Private security in the marine sector is currently not regulated in the way that it is on land. There is a big worry this could be opening the doors to a lot of cowboys," said Andrew Linington with seafarers' union Nautilus International.
Officials say it costs around $55,000 to deploy an experienced four-man security team on a 10-12 day transit between Suez and Galle in Sri Lanka. Firms touting for business without experience have offered teams at $15,000 to $20,000.
"Security companies and individual professionals who are trying to operate to high standards get undercut by the competition which is clearly less than satisfactory and provides a less than satisfactory service," said David Buston, managing director of security firm Red Cell and an IAMSP founder.
Mr. Dalby said the IAMSP had over 400 members, including former marines and special forces from Britain's Special Boat Service and the United States' Navy Seals, comprising "half of the reputable industry."
Overstretched international navies have proved unable to contain piracy in the Indian Ocean due to the vast distances involved. The crisis is costing world trade billions of dollars a year.
"The need to employ armed guards is an indication of the lack of political resolve to control the spread of Somali-based piracy across the northern Indian Ocean," said Peter Hinchliffe, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping.
"The lack of regulation in the private security sector in the maritime domain is a problem and this is leading to growth in the sector which suggests that standards may be very variable."
David Stone, a licensed and registered arms dealer, director of maritime security company APPDS Ltd. and an IAMSP member, said "fly-by-night" security companies had to buy their weapons on the black market in places such as Djibouti.
When approaching a 12-mile territorial zone close to a port, operators dumped their illicit weapons overboard, he said, in order to avoid getting caught breaking the law.
"It means when they do another transit they will have to buy more arms. So it's a vicious circle of the proliferation of illegal arms," Mr. Stone said. "This is something that the IMASP is trying to stop because it is illegal and gives a bad name to everyone in the business."
The safety committee of the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency, will this week discuss the development of guidance on employing maritime security companies.
Many in the security industry have called for an amendment related to the position of private armed teams, which is not addressed under international maritime conventions.
Maritime lawyers say armed private security guards involved in a killing on board a ship may run the risk of criminal prosecution in some countries.
"Whereas in the past it could be argued that non-lethal countermeasures would be enough to deter pirates, as the threat escalates, not being armed is now becoming more of a challenge to justify," said Red Cell's Buston, whose firm provides training and advice to maritime security professionals.
"Those that are in control of potential lethal force...must have clear and agreed procedures to work under. Without this, the already grey area of armed guards at sea could turn into a real mess."
Ships transiting the pirate-infested waters off the coast of Somalia will have firepower at their sides later this year if an escort patrol developed by an insurance broker is able to navigate a few more legal and financial obstacles.