It's been a while since we've heard about brazen attacks by pirates against merchant ships, such as the one that inspired the 2013 movie “Captain Philips.”
Several newly released reports on maritime piracy tell us that's because the number of pirate attacks in one of the world's hotspots – the waters off the Somali coast in East Africa – have significantly dropped since their peak in 2012.
According to a U.N. Security Council report released earlier this month, as of August, 2016, no seafarers for large commercial vessels are being held by Somali pirates. Dryad Maritime, a consulting group in the U.K., reports that "Somali piracy is broadly contained in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean." And, according to NYA International, another U.K.-based global risk and crisis management consultancy, there have been just two incidents reported over the past four months in East Africa and the Indian Ocean where Somalia-based pirate groups frequently operated over the past decade.
The reason for the drop? Experts cite an international policing program by the navies of many countries, including the United States, that has deterred and captured pirates, progress in creating a sustainable government in Somalia, anti-piracy policies enforced by several regional states that have helped reduce on-shore safe havens for pirates, and the use of armed guards on commercial vessels.
This is good news.
But these successes, although significant, are "fragile and reversible," according to the U.N report. Somali pirates are still intent on attacking large ships and endangering smaller vessels as well. The drivers that triggered the spate of piracy in 2005 are very much present in the region, namely the lure of big money in regions that lack economic opportunity and the deep entrenchment of criminal networks behind piracy.
"Without changes to the underlying factors and networks, piracy could re-emerge," the U.N report notes.
This uncertainty has caused the International Maritime Organization to warn commercial shipping companies navigating through the Somali coast not to be complacent and to continue with counter piracy measures despite the reduction in incidents. There has also been a detectable shift in the tactics of pirates – a response to both the increased law enforcement and the drop in oil prices. In the past, the bandits liked to go after large commercial oil tankers, holding their crews and cargo for millions of dollars in ransom. These are the types of attacks that have significantly dropped. Now, smaller vessels, such as fishing boats, are targeted and crews are kidnapped for ransom. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reports that 39 seafarers from smaller vessels are currently being held in captivity.
Meanwhile, piracy has surged in other locales, and the tactic is to kidnap the crew – rather than cargo – for ransom, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy, a Colorado-based non-profit group trying to develop a globally coordinated response to piracy.
The Gulf of Guinea off the West Coast of Africa (a key gateway for oil shipments form Nigeria and Angola) has become the new piracy hotspot. Pirates have expanded their hostage-taking to include offshore supply vessels and general cargo ships. In the waters off of Southeast Asia, bandits increasingly target mostly slow-moving vessels like tugs, trawlers and passenger boats.
"While it is reassuring to see historically low piracy levels off Somalia and (in the Indian Ocean) following years of effective international counter-piracy and land-based operations, the persistence of the threat in West Africa and Southeast Asia should be noted by ship owners, managers and charterers," said Alex Kemp, managing director at NYA International. "The threat of crew kidnapping has not disappeared with the decline in Somali piracy and the importance of security measures remain relevant.”
Pirates are also growing more sophisticated in their operations. It's not just a rusty boat and a few machine guns anymore. They are using high tech methods to find out the location and cargo of ships, with hackers breaking in online and stealing ship manifests, according to a BBC report. They are also flying drones to identify unguarded ships in busy sea lanes.
Law enforcement is responding in kind, also employing drones to locate pirates, and deploying specially-made spider web nets to entangle their vessels.
Experts say that piracy, although costly and dangerous, is limited to certain waters and doesn't threaten vessels everywhere.
"Those who are well-informed and well-prepared can continue to operate safely across the vast majority of the globe," said Ian Miller, Dryad's chief operating officer.