According to maritime security correspondent Steven Jones, the recent hijacking of a small tanker off the Somali coast is evidence that ships need to take the threat of piracy more seriously.
When the small tanker, “Aris 13” was hijacked off Somalia in March the news was greeted with calls for action, criticisms and concerns. Many industry experts stated the first hijacking of a commercial ship off Somalia since 2012 was just waiting to happen.
Alas, it seems, too many ships are starting to cut corners when it comes to security in the Indian Ocean, both literally and metaphorically. Vessels are heading closer to the shoreline of Somalia when transiting the area, shaving miles off their journey and saving fuel and time, but placing their crews, ships and cargoes into the line of fire.
There has also been a move away from the heightened security attitude and response of the early years of the decade. When Somali piracy was at its height, there was a rush of activity in the shipping industry. Rules and best management practices were developed, and many, many vessels began to have armed guards onboard. In short, shipping reacted strongly to the threat – and it worked.
While there has not been a successful hijack of a commercial vessel in the region for five years, attacks have continued. However, a combination of luck, preparation and a diminished pirate playbook have kept ships safe. It seems that could now be set to change.
Conditions ashore in Somalia have resolutely not been “fixed”. Life for Somalis is as hard now as it has been for decades. So, it seems that piracy was always likely to return. Young Somalis were going to be tempted back to sea, not just for fish but for a human catch.
Kidnap and ransom worked well, so the temptation has remained and any weaknesses in the response to that could be starkly exposed. The “Aris 13” hijack has shown what happens when the guard drops – when complacency creeps in and when chances are taken.
The vessel was too slow, too low and in a place that ships shouldn’t go. They were skirting, literally, too close to the flame, and got burned. The vessel, with its cargo of oil and crew of eight seafarers was attempting to cut through the “Socotra Gap” — between the tip of Somalia and the island of Socotra. A risky move indeed.
This route is used by vessels travelling down the east coast of Africa to save money and time, but with a significantly increased threat of piracy. As well as dangerous routing, “Aris 13” sat low in the water, with a freeboard of just three metres. This obviously made it easier for pirates to board the ship. The ship was slow too, travelling at just five knots. Almost a sitting target, and certainly an attractive one.
Thankfully the hijacking was soon over. Seemingly once the pirates realised the vessel was on charter to powerful Somali businessmen, they rescinded their ransom demand and released the vessel. However, this is quite literally a shot across the bow for shipping.
Vulnerable vessels are still targets, and those who do not take the right actions will likely be hijacked. Somalis still have the will and the capability to take ships, and as famine begins to hit ashore, and foreign fishing fleets hoover up off the coast, then it seems the conditions are remarkably similar to the last surge of Somali piracy.
It is time to reawaken to the threat, to ensure best management practices are followed, and not to take chances. There should be no shortcuts, no placing vulnerable vessels in dangerous positions, and crews should be protected and supported. Without such a response, the “Aris 13” will not be the only ship taken this year.