Last week I had the opportunity to speak about piracy and maritime crime at the annual conference of the Northwest Corridor Development Corporation (NCDC website here), a Canadian transportation organization that includes members of the shipping industry. (That, and last weekend's Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, kept me offline for a while.) Security issues and the economic impact that criminal activities like piracy cause the transportation sectors were of concern to a number of the participants who attended, especially given the notion that piracy is on the wane in places like the seas off the Horn of Africa (HoA). If this were true, it would be a welcome change in the situation for all parties involved. But I, for one, take a more pessimistic view, or, at least, a more cautious approach.
For instance, there was a report last week by David Axe that said Somali piracy is declining. As posted on the Voice of America and other sites, it quoted British Commodore Steve Chick, the head of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2, as saying that piracy is, "[S]ignificantly down compared to last year." (SNMG2 is a counter-piracy operation currently on patrol in the seas off the HoA.) The NATO commander said there was only one vessel captured in the region this summer (July-September), compared to 17 the same time last year. He believes that part of the reason for the decline has been "much better self-protection measures" taken by merchant vessels in the area, such as the use of fire hoses, secured access and barbed wire.
In a related report, Axe writes of how Somali pirates have evolved from small gangs into sophisticated maritime criminal groups, leading mariners to also evolve their defensive measures. As an example, he recalls last December's pirate attack on the Chinese ship Zhenhua 4, in which the crew defended themselves with Molotov cocktails. (FYI: That vessel was not a fishing trawler, but a heavy load carrier. It's open forward deck space aided in the ability of the Chinese crew to fend off the attack.) "These tricks," writes Axe, "[C]ombined with with improved security on land and the presence of some 40 warships in East Africa waters, have turned the tide in the 'global war on piracy.'"
From my perspective, fighting off pirates with Molotov cocktails or ringing a vessel's deckrails with barbed wire hardly constitute a more sophisticated response to dealing with attackers. If anything, they are cruder, more desperate measures borne out of a lack of sufficient resources available to seafarers. (And as to whether security has been improved on land, that certainly cannot refer to the situation in southern Somalia itself, where the summer has seen a wave of fighting, suicide bombings and deteriorating social ills for the people living there.)
But the more important issue is whether self-defense measures by mariners and naval patrols have really "turned the tide" against Somali pirates. It is true that in the summer months just passed attacks were down in the seas off the HoA. However, this is a normal pattern in piracy in the region, owing to the oft-mentioned monsoon winds that make the waters rougher. And, just as Somali pirates have learned when it's best to attack, so, too, have they learned when it's best to stay in port. It's quite likely that after such a profitable period - from last October to this June - pirate gangs realized the pickings were harder over the summer months and opted to play it safe. To believe that a reduction in incidents in this period constitutes a turning point in the situation seems wishful thinking (kind of like awarding someone a medal for intent as opposed to action).
From looking at reports compiled the last few years by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), piracy off the HoA traditionally picks up in October, November and December. So bluntly put, the new pirate season is just beginning.
The role of international naval forces cannot be underestimated when it comes to stemming piracy - they are an invaluable element in safeguarding the seas off the HoA. But keep in mind that earlier this year we saw the largest international armada of warships assembled since the Second World War patrolling those waters, and during that time attacks in the region soared to their highest levels: 144 incidents between January and July, compared with 24 in the same period in 2008 (per IMB stats).
If attacks truly decline by the end of this year, then we can really say that the tide is turning. Until that point, there is much to be done to improve self-protection measures for mariners and make the international naval presence in the region more effective. The real work is just beginning.