Sea Transportation: February 9, 2005

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Incidents of piracy, which has been a growing problem over the past decade, fell sharply (by about a third) in 2004. There were 445 attacks on merchant ships in 2003, but only 325 last year. The dramatic drop came from more energetic policing in the Philippines, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, the Caribbean, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Meanwhile, attacks were up in the Malacca Straits, Nigeria, Balikpapan, Malaysia, the Singapore Straits, South China Sea and Haiti. The Malacca Straits, between Indonesia and Malaysia, are the busiest seaway on the planet, and provides more potential pirate targets than anywhere else. Nigeria is beset by several oil stealing (and smuggling) gangs that are at home on the water, and have lots of guns. Balikpapan is the largest oil exporting port in Indonesia, and has attracted a lot of bad guys with fast boats and big guns. Malaysia has been cursed with piracy for centuries, and for many coastal families, its a tradition. The Singapore Straits, between Singapore and Malaysia is a favorite target of Malaysian pirates, partly because of all the traffic coming out the nearby Malacca Straits. The South China Sea also has a long pirate tradition, and corrupt Chinese naval police have added to the problems lately. Haiti has a lot of coastal traffic, and several seagoing gangs that have learned how to steal at sea. 

Nearly all acts of piracy are basically seagoing muggings. Late at night, speedboats full of heavily armed (with pistols and assault rifles) men come alongside a large merchant ship, use grappling hooks to scramble aboard, and then overwhelm and rob the small crews (rarely more than 40 sailors). The pirates then basically steal anything portable. These ships dont carry much cash, funds are transferred electronically as needed. But there are plenty of portable electronic items aboard, and knowledgeable pirates know what to look for and take. Less skilled pirates just take what they can find and get away. In rare cases, the ship is stolen, and the crew killed. There are many unreported (or less reported) pirate attacks on fishing boats, small coastal freighters and pleasure craft (especially yachts). These are more likely to result in murder and stolen ships. Its easier to unload a small fishing boat, than a thousand foot long container ship. 

The acts of piracy on the large merchant ships are carefully reported because these vessels are covered by expensive insurance policies. That's a primary reason for the decrease in pirate attacks, for the insurance companies will raise rates for ships operating in piracy prone areas, making local ports less competitive, and likely to lose business. In response, vulnerable ships are being equipped with more security equipment (cameras, sensors and the like.) If the crew can spot the pirates coming, they can use water hoses to hold them off until the local coast guard or harbor police can show up. If the pirates lose the element of surprise, they usually speed off. The pirates see this a low risk business, and avoid the police and coast guard. However, it is believed that most pirate attacks are carried out by a few groups. Also, nearly all pirates are operating close to home, and it is believed that the December, 2004, tidal waves in the Indian Ocean wiped out several pirate gangs in the region.

 


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