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The State of Piracy

​OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS there has been an increase in vigilance against maritime piracy, particularly off the east coast of Somalia, from governments and private sector actors. That effort now seems to be paying off. According to ICC Commercial Crime Services, 2011 marked the end of four years of increases in pirate attacks.

The most significant factor leading to declines in hijacking is that commercial vessels have implemented security measures, said Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary for political-military affairs at the U.S. State Department, speaking at a recent piracy panel hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

Among the measures Shapiro cited were: proceeding at full speed through troubled waters, adding physical barriers such as razor wire, having patrols and camera surveillance systems, and mustering crew in a safe room if necessary. “The steps make a pirate’s job harder and give naval vessels time to respond,” said Shapiro.

The Maritime Bulletin’s January piracy report has posited that armed guards are the main reason for the decline in hijackings. However, it can still be a challenge carrying weapons on ships, as many countries will not allow ships with weapons in their docks, according to Mark Martecchini, a managing director of Stolt Tankers, who represented ship owners at the Chamber panel. Thus, arming a ship often requires significant departures from normal routes. That costs time, fuel, and money, said Paul Gugg, security team leader at Chevron Shipping Co.

Shapiro said that the United States requires that U.S.-flagged vessels implement certain “best practices” security measures. Many ships are not U.S. flagged. However, about 80 percent of those that travel high-risk waterways implemented the measures. It’s notable, then, that most of the ships pirates successfully board have not implemented the recommended practices, though those make up only a fraction of the vessels transiting the region.

But it’s not only about what the individual ships are doing. Rear Admiral Terry McKnight said that Combined Task Force 151, a coalition of navies that McKnight formerly commanded, has done a lot to help with the piracy problem. McKnight said that if the navies are taken away, there is no doubt that pirates will get more aggressive.

At the heart of the problem, as with most crime, is whether the perpetrators feel the risk is worth the reward. The pirates hijack the ships so that they can get paid ransoms from ship owners or victims’ families. Shapiro said that paying ransoms, thus, only ensures further hijackings.

Maritime Bulletin’s report states that ransom demands have gone up because pirates have been reporting the amounts (perhaps because companies and governments do not want to publicize when or what they pay). Pirates exaggerated their take, leading others to ask for even more. Now amounts are becoming too high for ship owners to pay. Shapiro said that the average paid in ransom is now $4 million per incident.