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Gulf of Guinea piracy down in 2015

Pirates.Piracy and maritime crime in the Gulf of Guinea dropped by nearly a third in 2015 compared to the previous year, while Somali piracy remains contained, according to a new report, which notes that maritime crime in Southeast Asia continues to rise.

Dryad Maritime has reported that offshore maritime crime in the Gulf of Guinea saw a 29% drop in reported incidents in 2015 compared to 2014. “This drop…also saw an unprecedented five month break in piracy. However, it is not a time to be complacent, and the risk of kidnap remains a concern for crew of vessels operating off Nigeria with the overall figures for the number of crew kidnapped actually surpassing 2014’s records,” Dryad said.

In the Gulf of Guinea, Dryad reported 49 incidents during 2015, from cases ranging from petty theft to kidnapping and a single hijacking. This compares to 69 incidents during the previous year, a drop of 29%. After the five month break in piracy, kidnapping of crew offshore of the Niger Delta recommenced when armed gangs took 11 crew members in October and November in three separate incidents. Kidnap remains the most serious threat to mariners in the Gulf of Guinea, and further similar attacks will almost certainly occur in 2016, Dryad predicted.

In total, 2015 saw at least 37 crew kidnapped for ransom in nine separate incidents off the Niger Delta. This compares with 14 incidents of similar attacks in the area in the previous year, which resulted in the kidnapping of at least 34 crew members. The number of crew taken during 2015 is on a par with 2014, albeit from five fewer attacks, according to Dryad’s figures.

The main target for kidnap is western crew, usually the Master and Chief Engineer, due to the higher ransom that the pirates can demand. West African crew may only fetch several thousand pounds, whilst the criminals hold European crew until a ransom of over $100,000 per man is paid. The three crew, two Greek and one Pakistani, taken from MT Kalamos in February this year were only released once a $400,000 ransom payment was made.

The overall drop in the number of offshore attacks compared to 2014 was due to an unprecedented five-month period, from May to October of 2015, where no criminal attacks occurred at sea in the Gulf of Guinea. The start of this hiatus coincided with the inauguration of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, having ousted former President Goodluck Johnathan in the national elections. Some commentators believed that Buhari’s influence was responsible for the almost complete cessation of attacks off Nigeria’s coastline during that five month period. In reality though, it seems that a more proactive and visual presence that was being conducted by the Nigerian Navy off the Niger Delta, assisted by new ships commissioned long before Buhari came to power, is more likely to account for the prolonged break in maritime crime, Dryad reports.

The number of incidents of hijack for cargo theft also dropped during 2015 in the Gulf of Guinea. Whilst smaller vessels and barges are taken from within Nigeria’s vast river networks for the same purpose, there was just a single incident of this nature reported offshore. The small tanker MT Mariam was taken off the coast of Warri, Nigeria in early January 2015; the gang were eventually intercepted by the Ghanaian navy and arrested.

“In previous years, heavily armed criminal syndicates have conducted the hijacking of larger vessels hundreds of miles from the Nigerian coastline, before sailing them back to the Nigerian exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and transferring the cargo onto illegal offload tankers; in 2014 MT Kerala was hijacked in Angola, and MT’s Fair Artemis and Haisoon 6 were taken from Ghanaian waters. One possible explanation for this decline in cargo theft, from the seven reported attacks in 2012, is the reduced financial rewards available from black market oil due to the decline in the global price of oil. Nonetheless, as with any potential for maritime crime in the region, operators of product tankers should not become complacent to the risk of further attacks. Robbery of vessels alongside or at anchor in West African ports continues,” Dryad said.

Dryad said it anticipates a continuation of the level of kidnap off Nigeria. The main indicator of changes in the maritime security off Nigeria will be the reaction of the Niger Delta militants to the continued presidency of Buhari, and his efforts to balance their requirements for the development of the area alongside maintaining Nigeria’s political integration.

Indian Ocean

“The Somali pirate threat in the Indian Ocean remains broadly contained with no confirmed attacks of merchant ships, although the hijack/detention of three Iranian fishing vessels gives some cause for concern,” Dryad notes. In March 2015, Iranian dhows MSV Jaber and MSV Siraj were captured by Somali fishermen off the coast of Hobyo, Somalia (MSV Jaber escaped in August 2015). On 22 November, Iranian fishing vessel MSV Muhammidi was taken in the Somali basin southeast of Eyl and subsequently escaped on 28 November.

“The pragmatic decision to reduce the BIMCO-sponsored High Risk Area (HRA) is a recognition not only of this year’s crime statistics, but also of the continued decline in pirate activity over the course of the last three years. The war in Yemen has so far had minimal effect on the transit of shipping through the area, although the Saudi led coalition’s closure of the country’s ports has contributed to a humanitarian crisis ashore. The recent increase in hostilities between Saudi Arabia and Iran has the potential to add to the volatile geopolitical situation in the Gulf region,” Dryad’s report reads.

Although Dryad reports no hijackings in the Indian Ocean region, it notes an increase in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the waters off Somalia in 2015, with the Puntland Coast Guard subsequently arresting several vessels in the Gulf of Aden.

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia saw a 10% rise in maritime crime from 2014, continuing year on year trends, but this could have been larger were it not for the success of maritime authorities in arresting maritime criminals, according to Dryad. Dryad recorded 106 reports of incidents of maritime crime in the Singapore Strait during 2015, an increase of 72% from 2014, with most being boarding and robbery. In total, Southeast Asia recorded 236 incidents in 2015.

“Looking at the rest of the world, 2015 saw an increase in levels of maritime crime [up from 16 to 50 incidents of maritime crime in 2015]. This may not point towards a real terms increase though, as the quality of reporting continues to increase in multiple regions. A large portion of the incidents reported have occurred in the Caribbean, Central and South America, but there has been an unusual recurrence of reports coming from the Tianjin area of China.”

In total, 96 crew were kidnapped and nine killed in 2015, with 47 estimated to still be held in captivity. There were 353 worldwide incidences of maritime crime in 2015, up from 345 in 2014 and 318 in 2013, but down from the 2011 high of 503.

“Finally, the Mediterranean has become the area of most concern, due to the continued civil war in Libya and the expansion of the Islamic State terrorist organisation both there and in the Sinai. Thankfully, attacks ashore, like those seen in Tunisia, have not been mirrored with incidents at sea. Despite this, the unprecedented flow of desperate people, fleeing across the sea to Europe, has meant that the ongoing crises and instability across North Africa and the Middle East have had a significant impact upon maritime activities,” Dryad said. A total of over 1 million maritime migrants managed to successfully enter Europe via Greek and Italian islands, or by being rescued in attempts to do so, during the last 12 months.

Looking ahead at 2016, Dryad predicts that the threat of kidnap and theft in West Africa will continue, while hijack for cargo theft may again increase as criminal enterprises adjust to the lower price of fuel, but these will most likely be in small numbers and of smaller vessels, as seen in 2015.

The resumption of industrial scale piracy in the High Risk Area during 2016 is assessed to be unlikely. As long as the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden continues to see an international effort to supress piracy, the opportunities for any would be pirates are few and fraught with danger.

“The illegal taking of the fishing vessels off Somalia could be seen as a precursor to the return of Somali piracy but this seems unlikely,” Dryad noted.

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