While the Somali pirates get most of the publicity, they only carried out 44 percent of the attacks in the last year. But the Somalis accounted for 90 percent of the hijackings, and some 80 percent of the piracy was in and around the Indian Ocean. Some 44 percent of all attacks involved the pirates boarding the ships, while in 18 percent the pirates just fired on ships, without getting aboard. In the first nine months of 2010, one crew member on the attacked ships was killed, and 27 were injured. Another 773 sailors were held for ransom, along with their ships. This is all a major change in the way pirates operate.
Piracy hit a trough from the late nineteenth century into the later twentieth. That was because the Great Powers had pretty much divided up the whole planet, and policed it. The pirates had no place to hide. Piracy began to revive in a modest way beginning in the 1970s, with the collapse of many post-colonial regimes. Note that what constitutes an act of piracy is not clearly defined. It essentially comes down to non-state sanctioned use of force at sea or from the sea. This could include intercepting a speedboat to rob the passengers, but that's usually just thought of as armed robbery. And something like the seizure of the Achille Lauro in 1985 is considered terrorism, rather than piracy. In the past, some marginal states have sanctioned piratical operations, like the Barbary states, but that is rare any more.
The trend, however, is definitely up, with the big increase coming in the last decade..
o 1991: About 120 known cases of real or attempted piracy
o 1994: over 200 cases
o 2000: 471 cases
o 2005: 359 cases
o First nine months of 2010: 289 (likely total for the year, over 380 attacks).
Pirates usually function on the margins of society, trying to get a cut of the good life in situations where there aren't many options. This is usually in areas where state control is weakest or absent, in failing and "flailed" states (a flailing state is something like Nigeria, Indonesia, or the Philippines, where the government is managing to keep things together but is faced with serious problems and areas out of its control, unlike a failed state such as Somalia, where there isn't a government at all.)
The solution to piracy is essentially on land; go into uncontrolled areas and institute governance. This has been the best approach since the Romans eliminated piracy in the Mediterranean over 2,000 years ago. Trying to tackle piracy on the maritime end can reduce the incidence of piracy, but can't eliminate it. In the modern world the "land" solution often can't be implemented. Who wants to put enough troops into Somalia to eliminate piracy? And flailing states are likely to be very sensitive about their sovereignty if you offer to help them control marginal areas.
Piracy in the vital (most of the world's oil exports pass through here) Straits of Malacca was largely an Indonesian phenomenon. It bothered the Singaporeans a lot, the Malaysians a little, and the Indonesians not much. But as Indonesia began stabilizing itself over the past decade (the Aceh Peace settlement, the institution of a more democratic government, defeating Islamic terrorism), the rate of piracy declined. This decline was facilitated by the combined police effort of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia itself, which didn't come about until a lot of issues among the three states were resolved. Neither Indonesia nor Malaysia were all that upset about smuggling, which bothered Singapore. Singapore and Indonesia still have some problems, as Singapore more or less encourages sand stealing in enormous volumes from Indonesia. In the past year, there has been an increase in piracy off Indonesia, largely because the Indonesians reduced their anti-piracy patrols without warning or explanation.
In contrast to the Straits of Malacca situation, the U.S. approach to piracy has been largely a police mission, without trying to deal with the land-side. Again, that would mean occupying Somalia. But there are some regional constraints on piracy. There seems to be little or no piracy in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandeb. Apparently this was because the smugglers decided the pirates interfered with their business (by bringing in coalition naval forces), and so shut down any pirate operations themselves.
Although most merchant ships are not armed, it turns out that firefighting equipment can be very effective against pirates trying to board. Some types of merchant ships (like tankers and chemical carriers) have extraordinarily sophisticated and powerful equipment that can literally wash pirates overboard. And a modest industry has developed that attempts to "pirate proof" ships. More ships are making the effort, so the pirates are moving farther from the Somali coast in order to find unwary prey.