Despite some encouraging statistics reporting that incidents of piracy have fallen, Maritime Security Correspondent Steven Jones says severity has increased and that if anything, security should be ramped up to face these new threats.
There has perhaps been a temptation to celebrate of late, as maritime piracy has reportedly reached an 18 year low. Unfortunately, the good news is tempered by the latest International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) data, which states more crew were kidnapped at sea in 2016 than in any of the previous 10 years.
So we are seeing fewer attacks, but they are far more severe. This suggests there is something of a lag when it comes to maritime security. Attacks escalate and slowly a response emerges, but all too often it seems the pirate tail is wagging the security dog.
Seafarers and shipping companies are good at responding to known and recognised threats, but when new ones appear, there is a time of adjustment and crews often bear the brunt. Now in the new piracy hot spots it seems we need to quickly relearn the lessons which worked off Somalia and West Africa.
Today we see a new piracy triangle forming, bounded by Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Borneo, Sulawesi and Mindanao are the names on the lips of scared and uncertain seafarers.
Here in the world's fastest growing piracy hotspot, violent attacks on commercial vessels and seafarers are increasingly commonplace. A successful kidnap and ransom business is developing, as the Philippine terrorist group Abu Sayyaf is understood to be holding dozens of hostages, many of them seafarers.
There has been an intensive campaign of piracy over the past couple of years, beginning with a series of attacks on tugs and trawlers, and there is a clear threat to oceangoing merchant vessels. The militants are making good money from their new kidnapping model, and where there is financial success there is a business imperative to ramp up and take more.
With reports that Abu Sayyaf earned millions in ransom payments last year, it would seem likely they will scale up their efforts, and look to ever more lucrative and larger targets. There is always talk of the cyclical nature of shipping, but there is a cycle of piracy too.
It starts with small scale, often unreported attacks on small, local fishing vessels. Then larger trawlers, as the pirates hone their skills. They begin to take bigger targets and ransoms as the business model escalates. Suddenly they have the skills, experience and capabilities to strike at “proper” ships.
They begin to kidnap seafarers from other nations. Crews are spirited away ashore and suffer all kinds of torture, pain, hunger and stress. A ransom is paid, they are released and the pattern continues until sufficient political will develops to go and break up the pirate groups and their money laundering system.
In the new Asian piracy triangle we are at a critical juncture. Abu Sayyaf’s successful attack on the South Korean vessel, “MV Dongbang Giant” last year, shows their capability. The Master and another crewman were held for three months until a ransom was reportedly paid.
With ransoms come attacks, and so there are likely to be more seafarers kidnapped until action is taken, and this will be the place to watch for the foreseeable future. Already large vessels carrying iron ore from Australia to northern Asia are now sailing east of the Philippines, through the open Pacific Ocean to avoid the area.
It seems that there needs to be a ramping up of security efforts –there needs to be action at every level. Shipping companies need to be reminded of their duty to protect seafarers, while crews need to be aware and alive to threats. The response needs to reflect reality – and the hard truth is that seafarers are once again vulnerable to attack.