When most people think of pirates, they think of romanticized buccaneers with wooden limbs and cutlasses plundering goods from merchant vessels filled with treasures. But today’s real pirates are Somalis armed with machine guns and ladders, pursuing ships on skiffs. Piracy off the shores of Somalia is not as prominent as it was 10 years ago but it has been steadily rising in recent years.
Raiding in Somalia grew after the brutal civil war that devastated the nation. The government was unable to enforce its laws against foreign companies that allegedly had ties with the Italian mafia. These organizations seized the opportunity to illegally fish and dump toxic materials into their waters. Somali fishermen who once made huge profits were now scraping the bottom of the barrel. Angered by this, they decided to take matters into their own hands and began attacking and capturing foreign cargo ships, holding the crew and cargo for ransom. These raids began as revenge for what overseas organizations had done but when they saw how vastly profitable piracy was, they targeted any ships that their eyes fell on.
Somali pirates had good hauls just a decade ago. According to the Economist, it is estimated that these pirates made around $380 million USD between 2005 and 2012. Not bad for about a dozen or so bandits with guns and ladders. These rogues were even able to seize control of a massive oil tanker from 2008 to 2009. The MV Sirius Star is petroleum tanker owned and operated by a state-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco. They carried nearly $100 million in oil at the time of the hijacking. Pirates held the craft and the staff for almost two months before they released it when the Saudis air dropped a $3 million ransom. Now if you thought that was bad, imagine how much more money was extorted in the other 410 incursions reported in that year.
The maritime community searched for solutions that could curb piracy for many years. The idea of arming boats with security guards was shot down due to the many laws against bringing weapons to foreign harbours. Alternative tactics had to be employed such as using high-pressure fire hoses and sound-based weapons, most of which were largely ineffective. The corsairs would merely retreat and attempt another incursion at an opportune time, locating an undefended portion of the vessel and boarding from there.
As pirating became a larger problem, many countries banded together to form coalition navies to fend off pirates. Every permanent member of the United Nations security council had deployed their armadas for the first time since World War 2. Shipping companies have also begun hiring private maritime security contractors, placing barbed wire on the ship decks and training their crews to employ evasive maneuvers to escape attacking pirates. These tactics have caused attempted pirate hijackings and assaults to drop by 90% in 2013. Ever since then, however, anti-piracy measures have been scaled back, and so the pirates have started to strike once more.
Private maritime protection companies have been making a killing by charging thousands of dollars per day. Frugal shipping companies looking to save a buck don’t hire any armed security personnel for their ships. To save even more money, they also decide to take shorter routes instead of protected ones. These factors have also contributed to pirate attacks becoming more rampant in the region. Not all of these incursions or attempted boardings are reported either–companies have their reputations on the line and a report may sink their profits. It could also cause these mauraders to target them for another assault.
Negligence by shipping companies has slowly allowed the resurgence of Somali pirates. This has allowed the number of attacks to increase by 20% from last year. If they continue prioritizing profit rather than the safety and well-being of their crew, this could lead to ever increasing piracy in the coming years.