A few weeks ago, the world’s attention was focused on the Suez Canal, when a large container ship ran aground, holding up traffic on the canal and costing global trade an estimated $6 billion-$10 billion a week. Piracy or armed robbery is another threat in the maritime domain capable of paralysing and affecting maritime trade, and costing millions of dollars every year.
Maritime piracy or armed robbery incidents saw a spike last year. Attacks on ships by pirates/robbers increased by 20 percent (195 incidents) over 2019 (162), according to a report by the International Maritime Bureau of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) released in January 2021. Over the last five years ending 2020, more than 900 such incidents have been reported across the world, data show.
“Any incident of piracy hits confidence in the conduct of international shipping and threatens good order at sea,” Commodore Odakkal Johnson, Director and Head of Research at the Maritime History Society, told Moneycontrol. “Maritime trade is made economically difficult by diversionary routes or additional permanent and procedural maritime practices ranging from concertina coils on deck to escorted transits,” he said.
The economic costs of piracy at sea are enormous. It is estimated that Somali pirates extracted around $338 million in ransom between 2005 and 2015, according to a report by the World Bank released in 2017. An earlier report in 2013 estimated a loss of $18 billion a year caused by Somali pirates to the world economy as shippers were forced to alter trading routes and pay more for fuel and insurance premiums.
Piracy during the Covid pandemicOf the 195 incidents in 2020, 84 percent or 164 were actual attacks while the rest (31) were attempted attacks. Kidnapping/ransom is the most common (135 incidents) type of violence inflicted on the crew and 34 cases of hostage-taking were reported.
Among the types of vessels attacked, tankers with chemicals/products reported 53 incidents in 2020, followed by bulk carriers (51), containers (27), general cargo (13), crude oil tankers (10) and others.
In 2020, the west coast of Africa — around the Gulf of Guinea — was one of the most vulnerable regions for armed attack/piracy, followed by East and Southeast Asia, South America and the Indian sub-continent, data on reported incidents show.
Waters along the coast of Nigeria and neighbouring countries — off Western Africa — have emerged as the hotbed of maritime piracy. About 20 percent of all the attacks/attempts carried out, on an average over the last five years, were reported around Nigeria, an oil producing nation. The seas around Indonesia and the Singapore Straits remain the other two hotspots for maritime piracy.
“Most of the incidents that take place in Southeast Asia or in the subcontinent are armed robbery when ships are at anchor,” says Captain Rohit Garg, a Master Mariner with over 30 years of experience. “These are mostly small fishermen who come to steal from the ship stores. Armed piracy usually takes place in Western Africa, the Gulf of Aden and around the Red Sea region.”
However, piracy has reduced in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea region over the last few years, says Garg. “The reason being, global awareness, ships being fully compliant with [Best Management Practice] BMP 5 and private contracted armed guards riding with the ships in high risk areas. We follow traffic zones/ corridors, which are tracked through aerial surveillance by naval convoys that provide support along these maritime corridors, he said.
Among the nationalities (flags) of ships attacked in 2020, Marshall Islands reported the most (33 of 195) followed by Liberia (32) and Singapore (28). Only two attacks were reported on Indian ships last year, while eight that fell victim to attacks were controlled/managed by Indians.
Why India and its seafarers should be cautious
Indian crew and officers are a prominent part of world shipping, accounting for nearly 10 percent of global seafarers, and ranking third in the list of the large seafarer supplying nations to the world maritime industry.
“When Indian crew are on board global ships that pass through pirate hotspots, they become vulnerable. If the crew is taken away for ransom it becomes a difficult situation, as the actual owner is someone else, and he gives his ship to a third party for operations. The operator or ship management company subcontracts the manning of the ship to another company in a country like India or the Philippines,” explains Garg.
In the case of MV Ever Given, the ship that was stuck in the Suez Canal, the vessel was owned by a Japanese company, managed by a German firm and controlled or manned by Indian crew.
Garg adds: “If the managing company closes its shop, they will not pay the ransom, putting the crew at risk. Then ransom has to come from the owners, but because of several different contracts and clauses it becomes a difficult situation. Some ship owners or management companies refuse to take up consignments, especially in the Western African region, fearing the risk of armed piracy.”
India, a maritime trading nation
About 90 percent of India’s trade by volume and 70 percent by value is transported through sea. Given this, maritime piracy is a concern, as it is not restricted to a particular area or zone, but has become widespread in almost every part of the world.
Singapore, Indonesia and Nigeria are among India’s leading trade partners — along with several other Southeast Asian and African countries — and maritime trade routes along these countries are prone to piracy/armed robbery. Indian sailors are being caught in a piracy boom off West Africa, CNN reported last month.
With most of the incidents reported around Nigeria — Indian cargo and shipping vessels passing through these sea lanes need to be on alert. Nigeria is India’s largest trade partner in Africa, while India is its largest trade partner globally. About 10 percent of India’s annual crude requirements come from Nigeria. It was the third-largest supplier of crude oil and second largest supplier of Liquefied Natural Gas to India in 2019-20. Thus it is crucial to protect the sea lanes in this region to safeguard India’s energy needs.
Pirates operating off the Western African region, especially in the area around Nigeria and Benin, are well armed and violent. Kidnapping for ransom is one of the biggest threats posed by seafarers and crews in this region.
Between January 2009 and December 2019, more than 500 Indians were captured by pirates around the world at various points of time, said a report presented in Parliament in February 2021.
Indian Navy’s efforts
The Indian Navy has played a significant role in combating maritime piracy, especially in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). “The Indian Navy has stayed deployed in the Gulf of Aden for over 12 years in addition to being a first responder across the IOR through its mission-based deployments,” said Commodore Johnson.
As many as 72 Indian Navy warships have been deployed till March 2019, safely escorting more than 3,440 (including 413 Indian-flagged) ships with over 25,062 mariners on board, notes the 2018-19 annual report of the Ministry of Defence, the latest available. The Navy has thwarted 44 piracy attempts and apprehended 120 pirates till April 2019, it states.
To further address the menace of piracy, the Government of India introduced ‘The Anti-Maritime Piracy Bill, 2019’ in the Lok Sabha in December that year. The Bill, once enacted, will allow Indian authorities to take action against piracy in the high seas and provide punishment for the offence of piracy.
The government should try for an early enactment of anti-piracy legislation, said a Parliamentary Committee report on The Anti Maritime Piracy Bill, 2019, presented this February. With this, India will become a part of a global effort to fight piracy, and the law will provide a sound legal basis for prosecuting and punishing persons committing acts of piracy. This may also provide security to India’s maritime trade including the safety of vessels and crew members, the report noted.
“The seas are global commons and a free, open and inclusive maritime space is vital to robust geoeconomics and good order at sea. That comes from partnerships, combined naval exercises, regional dialogues and operational mechanisms to tackle common threats to the international maritime order. All measures need to be backed up by effective information collation and sharing mechanisms. Modern efforts hinge on enhancing transparency at sea to the degree feasible, by technology and collaborative arrangements,” said Commodore Johnson.Disclaimer: The responses offered by Commodore Odakkal Johnson, Director & Head of Research at the Maritime History Society, are his personal views and do not reflect the official position of the Indian Navy or the Government of India.