A British replenishment (supply) ship, the RFA Fort Victoria (armed with four 20mm autocannon and some Royal Marines), searching for pirate mother ships far from the Somali coast, came across a small sea going boat that was drifting. When some Royal Marines were sent to investigate, the men on the suspect boat were seen throwing their weapons overboard. The small boat had 13 men aboard, along with quantities of equipment used to board ships. The Somalis admitted they were pirates, and had been at sea for 45 days, most of it adrift after their engine died and their radio along with it. They had rigged one of their boarding ladders to carry a sail, trying to get home. The Royal Marines took the Somalis to the 31,000 ton Fort Victoria (which also had a helicopter pad aft, and an armed helicopter used to search for pirates), and then burned the pirate's boat. The pirates were later dropped off on the Somali coast, free to be pirates again.
For the last two years, Somali pirates have been operating as far east as the Seychelles, which are a group of 115 islands 1,500 kilometers from the African coast. The islands have a total population of 85,000 and no military power to speak of. They are defenseless against pirates. So are many of the ships moving north and south off the East Coast of Africa. While ships making the Gulf of Aden run know they must take measures to deal with pirate attacks (posting lookouts 24/7, training the crew to use fire hoses and other measures to repel boarders, hanging barbed wire on the railings and over the side to deter boarders), this is not so common for ships operating a thousand kilometers or more off the east coast of Africa. Ships in this area were warned late last year that they were at risk. Now, the pirates are out in force, demonstrating that the risk is real.
The pirates are media savvy, and are pushing the line that they are simply patriots, getting payback for the foreigners who illegally fish in Somali waters (common) and dump toxic wastes off the coast (rare, but makes for great headlines). There are over a thousand gunmen attached to pirate gangs in the north, although the group operating off the east coast pay "taxes" to al Shabaab for the use of several fishing villages. Most of the ships seized late last year were taken closer to the Yemeni coast, thus showing that the entire Gulf of Aden (between Yemen and Somalia, with the Indian ocean to the east and the entrance to the Red Sea to the west) was subject to pirate attacks. Despite the scary headlines this has generated, world trade, or even traffic to the Suez Canal (at the north end of the Red Sea) is not threatened. While ten percent of world shipping traffic goes through the Gulf of Aden each year, most of it is in ships too fast for the pirates to catch, and too large for them to easily get aboard. These ships pay higher fuel costs (for the high speed transit), higher insurance premiums, and two days of "danger pay" for their unionized crews, and that's it. This increases the annual operating costs of these ships by a fraction of one percent. But for smaller, and slower, freighters, mostly serving local customers, the pirates remain a problem. These ships tend to be owned by African and Arab companies, and manned by African and Arab crews.
In dealing with a piracy problem like this, you have three main choices. You can do what is currently being done, which is patrolling the Gulf of Aden and shooting only when you see speedboats full of gunmen threatening a merchant ship. The rule appears to be that you fire lots of warning shots, and rarely fire at the pirates themselves. This approach has saved a few ships from capture, and the more warships you get into the Gulf, the more pirate attacks you can foil. But it won't stop the pirates from capturing ships. Establishing a similar anti-piracy patrol off the east coast of Africa would cost over half a billion dollars a year, at least.
A second approach is to be more aggressive. That is, your ships and helicopters shoot (pirates) on sight and shoot to kill. Naturally, the pirates will hide their weapons (until they are in the act of taking a ship), but it will still be obvious what a speedboat full of "unarmed" men are up to. You could take a chance (of dead civilians and bad publicity) and shoot up any suspicious speedboat. Some of the pirates would probably resort to taking some women and children with them. Using human shields is an old custom, and usually works against Westerners. More pirate attacks will be thwarted with this approach, but the attacks will continue, and NATO will be painted as murderous bullies in the media.
The third option is to go ashore and kill or capture all the pirates, or at least as many as you can identify. Destroy pirate boats and weapons. This is very dangerous, because innocent civilians will be killed or injured, and the property of non-pirates will be damaged. The anti-piracy forces will be condemned in some quarters for committing atrocities. There might even be indictments for war crimes. There will be bad publicity. NATO will most likely avoid this option too. The bottom line is that the pirate attacks, even if they took two or three times as many ships as last year, would not have a meaningful economic impact on world shipping. For example, the international anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden costs $300 million a year, a fraction of a percent of the defense budgets of the nations involved. Politicians and bureaucrats can stand that kind of pain, and will likely do so and refrain from doing anything bold in Somalia.