Pirates may be figures of romance, like Captain Jack Sparrow, or historical fact, like the Viking raiders, but what they haven’t been, until the last few years, is a statistical risk. And that’s surprising, because piracy has always been with us. However, in the past five years, the ‘menace’ of piracy has begun to have serious impacts on international waters, and the worst peril is the inadvertent one.
Two pirate attacks a week in 2008
Around 120 reported pirate attacks were recorded in 2008, with fifty of them including hostage taking as part of the attack. Large numbers of crew have been kidnapped, exactly how many is unknown, although six crew people on registered vessels have been killed in the past twelve months. Part of the issue is that many of the ships that are attacked by pirates are not registered: they are artisanal fishing vessels or close-to-shore craft like barges and dredgers, coal transporters and other large but slow craft that may not be registered with marine organisations, and so there is no knowing how many are attacked and/or how they deal with those attacks. It’s certainly the case that some fishing captains pay off one pirate captain to protect them from others, turning the pirate vessel into a kind of marine sheepdog.
The Somali coast is notorious for attacks, including those on cruise ships that have caused some lines to reroute cruises to avoid the Gulf of Aden. But the most recent apparent attack has been on a Russian cargo vessel that travelled through the British Channel, apparently with the pirates on board and in charge, before being located by Russian forces near the Cape Verde islands. And the ship appears to have been attacked twice, once in the Baltic and the second time off the Portuguese coast.
Pirates have GPS and AK47s, not cutlasses and rum
The range of piracy is vast, from simple boarding at night and opportunistic theft, a scenario in which the vessel may not even be aware it’s been attacked until morning, when fixtures and fittings are missing, through to strike attacks with many small high-speed boats being launched from a mother ship that coordinates the activity through radio communication, using GPS tracking to pinpoint targets. These small boats have been armed with rocket-propelled grenades, and assault rifles. There have also been times when pirates have disguised themselves as naval patrol boats in order to board unsuspecting larger vessels.
This more sophisticated form of piracy appears to be well-developed, with the pirates targeting high value cargos that can be easily unloaded from the hijacked vessel. The fear is that one day, their intelligence system will break down and instead of targeting a container ship or small oil tanker, they will end up in possession of a chemical carrier or a ship carrying spent nuclear materials.
Environmental risks escalate the longer a ship is held to ransom
Ransoms are a large part of the piracy equation – so far, the highest publicly acknowledged ransom has been the one paid for the Saudi Arabian oil tanker, Sirius Sta, which carried around £50 million of crude oil and was ransomed for around £15 million. For these ship ransoms to work, the vessel has to be under the control of the pirates for a considerable period of time, often meaning that pirates with little or no knowledge of navigation are piloting huge vessels through complex waters – the risk of an environmental disaster in these conditions is very high, which is one reason that crews are advised to comply with pirate demands and to sail the vessel to their orders. The highest level of risk is that pirates will take a vessel they cannot manage, will refuse crew cooperation and will run a highly toxic or dangerous cargo into heavily used waters where it will crash or founder.
There isn’t much international cooperation on this issue: some regional initiatives, such as the one launched by Indonesia, Malayasia and Singapore has been successful in removing many pirate crews from the Malacca Straits, but the pirates simply relocate to another area. The EU task force working in the Indian Ocean seems to be having little effect and while many nations have ships in that area to protect their interests, including the USA and Russia, there is no coordination of effort. Possibly there won’t be, until a massive oil or chemical spill forces a united political response to the actions of pirates.