November 18, 2012: A decade of dealing with the Somali pirates has motivated merchant ships to adopt policies that make life very difficult for the pirates. To aid this process the NATO anti-piracy patrol emails advice to ships entering areas where pirates are active. The advice is based on experience with what works best to avoid getting captured by the pirates. If a vessel is captured it costs the shipping companies (that own the vessel) millions of dollars and it means the crew spends months (even a year or more) held captive on their own ship, often in squalid conditions. There is also the risk of injury, sickness, or death, not to mention beatings and lack of medical care. So the crews have plenty of incentive to follow the advice.
The first item of advice is to keep a sharp lookout all the time. Radar will often reveal the larger mother ships but the smaller speedboats carrying the pirate boarding party can only been seen by lookouts. If possible, supply these men with night-vision equipment. The pirates like to attack at night.
Stay away from unidentified ships, especially the small wooden cargo ships and ocean going fishing ships the pirates like to seize and use as mother ships. The pirates will not be able to deceive a determined identification attempt and the email advice gives plenty of tips on how to tell who is a pirate. If you identify a nearby ship as one seized by pirates, radio the anti-piracy patrol to check it out. Many mother ships are put out of action that way.
Avoid stopping at night, as this makes you a perfect target for pirate attack. When stopped at night use only the minimum number of navigation lights and otherwise keep the ship as dark as possible. If you must stop (usually outside a port) make sure the lookouts are alert and keep crew ready to quickly start the engines. Large ships can outrun and out maneuver pirates in their speed boats but only if the larger ship is moving.
The anti-piracy patrol has also issued a list of things to look for when you see small wooden cargo ships and ocean going fishing ships and want to know if they have been taken over by pirates. The list describes the many telltale signs that these small ships have been turned into mother ships (and thus reportable to the anti-piracy patrol).
So far this year successful piracy attacks are down over 50 percent. This is part of a trend over the last two years. 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) are 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 Somali pirates are having such a hard time in part 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 also 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.