Pirates and armed robbers attacked 43 ships and captured 58 seafarers in the first quarter of this year, slightly more than the same period last year, according to the latest ICC International Maritime Bureau (IMB) piracy report, while Yemen’s worsening conflict is contributing to a spike in regional piracy.
The IMB global report highlights persisting violence in piracy hotspots off Nigeria and around the Southern Philippines – where two crew members were killed in February. Indonesia also reported frequent incidents, mostly low-level thefts from anchored vessels.
In total, 33 vessels were boarded and four fired upon in the first three months of 2017. Armed pirates hijacked two vessels, both off the coast of Somalia, where no merchant ship had been hijacked since May 2012. Four attempted incidents were also recorded.
Somali pirates successfully hijacked a small bunkering tanker and a traditional dhow, both within their territorial waters. Twenty-eight crew were taken hostage and released within a relatively short time. IMB suspects these incidents were opportunistic, particularly as the hijacked vessels were not following the Best Management Practices for Protection against Somalia Based Piracy (BMP4) recommendations.
“IMB continues to encourage all vessels transiting waters around Somalia to follow the BMP4 recommendations. The recent attacks should serve as a warning against complacency, as Somali pirates are still capable of carrying out attacks,” said Pottengal Mukundan, IMB director.
“The presence of international navies patrolling these waters is important as it provides an added layer of deterrence to pirates and more importantly helps to secure one of the most important trade routes of the world,” he added.
Meanwhile, the European Union Naval Force (EU Navfor) has warned that Somali pirates are taking advantage of a reduced international naval presence and more readily available weaponry to carry out attacks. “The regional instability caused by Yemen is important,” Colonel Richard Cantrill, chief of staff with the European Union’s counter piracy mission EU NAVFOR, told Reuters last week.
Fighting between Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition has spilled over into the shipping lanes through which much of the world’s oil passes. And attacks on merchant ships in recent weeks by Somali gangs around the Gulf of Aden, the first since 2012, have raised fears of a return to hijackings and crews being taken hostage for long periods.
This is partially driven by the risk of famine and drought in the region, navy officials said, adding that there have been around six incidents involving Somali pirates and international merchant ships in recent weeks. These included the attempted hijacking in April of a Tuvalu-flagged cargo ship that was rescued by the Chinese navy after the crew sent a distress call. Separately, Somali pirates held the Sri Lankan crew of a Comoros-flagged ship hostage before they were released.
Gerry Northwood, of maritime security firm MAST and a former British Royal Navy captain with experience commanding warships in the region, said the area around the Horn of Africa and a section of water known as the Socotra Gap – between Somalia and the Yemeni island of Socotra – was a hub for local trading and fishing and the main route through which Somali mother vessel dhows moved between the Gulf of Aden and the wider Indian Ocean.
EU NAVFOR’s Cantrill said smaller vessels with slower speeds were more vulnerable in the Socotra Gap, which is outside of a sailing zone protected by international warships.
The spate of attacks by pirate gangs has also been linked to growing anger among Somalis over the failure by authorities to crack down on foreign fishing vessels threatening their livelihoods, as well as an influx of weapons.
“The price of weaponry has markedly reduced. So, if you are trying to get hold of a certain weapon, it might easier now and cheaper and that could have an impact on criminal actors in Somalia – some of whom might wish to return to piracy,” Cantrill said.
However, there was still a “real willingness between navies and nations to co-operate” despite tighter assets available, Cantrill said, adding that the coming weeks following the monsoon season would be crucial as attacking vessels becomes easier due to better weather conditions at sea.
“We have seen a spike in piracy activity, but I would not yet characterise it as a resurgence,” Cantrill said.
Gulf of Guinea
According to the IMB, of the 27 seafarers kidnapped worldwide for ransom between January and March 2017, 63% were in the Gulf of Guinea.
Nigeria is the main kidnap hotspot, with 17 crew members taken in three separate incidents up from 14 in the same period last year. All three vessels – a general cargo ship, a tanker and a bulk carrier – were attacked while underway 30 to 60 nautical miles off the Bayelsa coast. Three more ships were fired on at up to 110 nautical miles from land and other attacks apparently go unreported.
“The Gulf of Guinea is a major area of concern, consistently dangerous for seafarers and kidnappings are increasing. IMB has worked with response agencies in the region including the Nigerian Navy which has provided valuable support, but more needs to be done to crack down on the area’s armed gangs. We urge vessels to report all incidents so the true level of piracy activity can be assessed,” Mukundan said.
In the Southern Philippines nine ships reported attacks in the first quarter of the year compared with only two in the same period last year. These include an armed attack on a general cargo vessel in which two crew were killed and five kidnapped for ransom. Kidnappers captured five more people in attacks on a fishing trawler and a tug.
IMB said militant activity may be behind the escalating violence in waters around the Southern Philippines. Armed groups use speedboats to target seafarers and fishermen in slow-moving, low vessels.
Areas such as the Sulu Sea and Sibutu Passage are particularly risky. IMB recommends ships avoid these waters by transiting West of Kalimantan, if possible and, as ever, follow the industry’s latest best practice measures to protect against attacks.
Piracy peaked in 2011 and then declined after ship owners improved security and international naval forces stepped up patrols. But naval resources have since tightened due to other crises, while shipping companies – struggling with one of the worst sector downturns – have tried to cut costs.
A study by the Oceans Beyond Piracy non-profit group last week showed the cost of piracy in East Africa reached $1.7 billion last year, up from $1.3 billion in 2015 but well below the $7 billion reached in 2010.