“Listen up: we have been boarded by armed pirates. If they find you, remember, you know this ship; they don’t. Stick together and we’ll be all right. Good luck.”— Captain Richard Phillips
Surprisingly calm and reassuring words given by Captain Phillips to his crew—in the Hollywood dramatization of the same name—just before his ship is boarded by a band of ruthless pirates. While the award winning film was fairly accurate in its portrayal of the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, does maritime piracy still pose a major risk to the supply chain, or have things moved on since 2009?
The global statistics indicate that in 2013, the threat of piracy appeared to have slowed down, for the time being, falling by 40% since 2011. This is however no time for freight crews to become complacent. When examined on a case by case basis, there are still many harrowing incidents. Just last month, a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Malacca was attacked by armed raiders. The ship was drained of 2.5 million dollars’ worth of diesel and three members of the crew were kidnapped. The unfortunate reality is that ships operating in the South East Asia and Indian Sub-Continent, Africa and the Red Sea still face a very real threat.
There are several consequences and disruptions caused by maritime piracy. The risk and potential loss or injury of crew members and ransom demands are perhaps the most well-known types of disruptions. There is also the additional large monetary cost incurred as a result of a myriad of knock-on effects. Theft and loss of cargo are major concerns when travelling in piracy prone areas; replacing lost goods and delayed shipments incur additional costs and can cause extended lead times. Understandably, the potential human risk makes finding staff willing to traverse these potentially hazardous routes more difficult. Lastly, when you add all these factors together, which in themselves increase costs, there are the rising insurance premiums to take into consideration. Naturally this in turn means the end consumer and the shipping industry as a whole all must pay more— between $0.9 and $3.3 billion, according to the London School of Economics, for every $120 million just snatched by Somali pirates.
As we have however previously noted, maritime piracy activity has actually decreased in recent years. This is no coincidence, but rather the result of a combination of several counter-measures that have been put into action.
Actions taken by both a ships’ crews and marine authorities essentially boil down to two types: defensive and offensive measures. Defensive measures include “limited avoidance” strategies, whereby a vessel takes an alternative, albeit much longer and more fuel-intensive (and thus more expensive— up to $15 billion/year) route to avoid waters where pirates operate. The “deter and delay” strategy is another example of a defensive measure. In the event of a hijacking (pdf), this could mean using water cannons or sealing off areas of the ship with barbed wire and other deterrents. Alerting naval authorities while the ship’s crew remains locked in a “Citadel”—a secure room that cannot be accessed from the outside—while turning off the ships engines until the navy arrives, is also an option.
Some success has been attained in deterring cargo ship hijacking through “offensive” actions as well. Yet this is not as simple as arming a ships’ crew to the teeth. As the Canadian Naval Review (pdf) points out, simply arming crew member with guns has several complications, including the additional liability of bringing fire arms on board and the fact that many port authorities prohibit weapons from being brought into or out of their ports.
While naval patrols have also experienced some success in deterring piracy attacks and apprehending them, this also brings complications. The correct diplomatic procedures must first be undertaken, for example when a US navy vessel is operating in Somali waters. The Rules of Engagement must be fully abided by before naval authorities can spring into action, which include requiring the hostile vessel to be identified and to be warned that deadly force will be undertaken. If successfully captured, there is then the complex procedure of working out where the criminals should be tried in court. Due to the contradictory nature of maritime legislation, naval forces may at times abide by a ‘catch and release,’ policy, essentially setting the pirates free.
While progress has most certainly been made in safeguarding vessels traversing dangerous waters, the threat of piracy is still very real. In your opinion, what more can be done to protect the maritime supply chain?