Aug 152009

Piracy attacks off Somalia and the Horn of Africa have doubled this year compared to 2008 – or have they? At least one piracy expert is dubious about the widely quoted figures and fears that they may mislead shipping companies into relying on naval forces currently in the region rather than taking appropriate action to protect their own vessels.

In 2008 there were 111 reported attacks and 32 actual hijackings. This year in first six months alone, the figures are 250 attacks and 32 actual ship-takings. Those are worrying numbers, but do they actually mean anything and how should they affect our decision making?

Mike Murrell, Chief Operations Officer of ISSG Holdings Ltd is one of those doubtful about the published figures: “The reported hijackings are probably pretty factual, however, my thoughts are on the supposed increase in attacks. When looking at the Live Piracy map by the IMB as a basis, I can see that the reported attacks of course have gone up dramatically, however, for some reason, the reported sightings of “suspicious” vessels stands at only three. This is what caught my eye and started my thought process as to the reality of attacks… Through a few informal talks with seaman, I found that the only attacks that are normally reported, are those that result in significant damage to the vessel, serious injury to a crew member, or of course, the actual successful hijacking itself.”

It is commonly supposed that only 50 percent of actual attacks are reported for those and similar reasons. Reporting an attack  may not only affect insurance rates but lead to the ship being detained while ‘investigations’ are carried out by corrupt law enforcement personnel looking for palm-grease.  But there are other reasons why attacks would not be reported.

Illicit fishing vessels and toxic waste dumpers, which have contributed to the poverty that drives piracy for instance. For them to report a hijacking would be rather like a car thief complaining to the police about someone who sideswiped his stolen vehicle.

Within the past few days two fishing vessels held by pirates after ‘accidentally’ encroaching on on Somali fishing grounds escaped. Neither was on any database of hijacked vessels. There is no database of such ‘unreported’ hijackings.

To confuse things even more thoroughly, Puntland authorities say that the vessel that escaped were legitimately seized by coastal law enforcers for illegal fishing.

A  confidential risk assessment made available to MAC says:

“There is a general impression that only 2% of vessels are attacked and of that 2 % only a percentage (not presented) is successfully attacked. This number is suspect for the following reasons:

“It is base on reports into a single reporting enter and there is no reasonable assurance that all attacks or suspicious vessels are, in fact reported and

“There is little analysis of specific reports to determine if any of the population of reported attacks share common characteristics that would perhaps indicate a higher percentage possibility of attack.”

So one is dealing with the curious phenomenon of an alleged increase in piracy attacks and hijacking but no increase in the number of suspicious vessels reported. This does not make sense: more piracy, or more active pirates should not only result in more hijacks and attacks but in reports of suspicious vessels, too. That hasn’t happened.

What’s going on?

We may, in fact, not be seeing an increase in hijacking and attacks at all but the result of the presence of multinational naval forces in the area. Ships have someone to call for help that they didn’t have before and someone ‘safe’ to report to without being subject to other kinds of exposure that previously discouraged reporting attacks both by legitimate and Illegitimate vessels.

To cut to the chase, the increase in reported pirate attacks and hijacks is almost certainly driven by the presence of international naval forces in the area, not by an increase in actual piracy.

Piracy attacks could have fallen due to the presence of naval forces or could have risen despite them. There is no reliable data either way on which to base decisions.

Murrell warns: “The response to this may be causing the maritime industry to go in the wrong direction when it comes to vessel defense. The answer is not to rely on the naval flotilla, but to take the appropriate action to protect their own vessels.”

The lack of increase in reports of suspicious vessels should worry the industry. Whether or not piracy attacks and hijacks have increased one would have expected a rise in reports of suspicious vessels anyway – ship’s officers should be far more streetwise about passing through the waters in the Horn of Africa, Somalia and Gulf of Aden now than they were a couple of years ago. They should have heightened situational awareness.

Do they? It would seem not.

Effective anti-piracy measures don’t start in Washington, the UN, NATO, London, Tokyo, Berlin, Moscow, Madrid, Istanbul or any other centre of international power but the bridges of ships passing through those waters and in the minds of the officers manning those vessels.

That, it would seem, is a lesson yet to be learned.

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