Sea Transportation: Pity The Poor Pirates Again

September 6, 2012: Pirate activity declined last year, to 439 incidents compared to 445 in 2010. Africa (mainly off Somalia on the east coast and the Gulf of Guinea on the west coast) accounted for 63 percent of the attacks. But the pirates have been less successful over the last two years. In 2010 the Somali pirates seized 49 ships, compared to 28 last year (a decline of 43 percent). For example, in the last quarter there were 90 attacks off Somalia, with 21 percent of them resulting in ships taken for ransom. In the last quarter of 2011 there were only 31 attacks and only 13 percent of them were successful.
Other areas where there is piracy (mostly stealing portable items, not hijacking ships) is a problem were Bangladesh, South China Sea, and Indonesia. In most of these areas pirate activity was also declining because of more active law enforcement and more alert crews on commercial ships. Outside of Somalia, most of the piracy is basically robbing the crew of their valuables and any portable items of worth from the ship (that will fit into the pirates' small boat.)

The bad-news-for-pirates trend continues into this year. The first six months of 2012 saw a 33 percent decline in attacks compared to the first half of 2010. In the first six months of 2012 twenty ships were taken for ransom. Only 13 were by Somali pirates, which was a 38 percent decline from last year. In the last two months the Somali pirates have been even less successful.

The Somali pirates are having such a hard time because so many merchant ships are carrying armed guards (who also augment the lookouts, and more frequently spot and identify pirates before they get too close.) The international anti-piracy patrol off Somalia has dozens of warships and maritime patrol aircraft escorting convoys of merchant ships and (from the air) tracking pirate mother ships (which are usually intercepted and destroyed by warships).

Some of the pirates on the west coast of Africa (mainly the Gulf of Guinea) have become bolder and are hijacking ships (which they mainly take only long enough to steal the cargo). This is not a new trend (it has long been common in Asia), but it is new for West Africa. There are more naval forces active in West Africa, and the pirates there will not have years of freedom from retribution like the Somali pirates did. In Asia the police and coastal security forces are aware of the "take the ship, disable navigation beacon, steal cargo" scam and have made it more difficult for pirates to get away with it. China was most successful at this, mainly because most of the culprits were executed.

Despite the recent success of countermeasures, piracy is still an attractive proposition to some criminals. There are still multi-million dollar ransoms to be had for Somali pirates (the only ones on the planet with safe harbors to store their captured ships while the ransom is negotiated). So despite increased difficulty in seizing ships, thousands of Somali pirates are still out there trying.


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