Global sea piracy ticks upward, and the coronavirus may make it worse

Brandon Prins, a Professor of Political Science & a Global Security Fellow at the Howard Baker Center, University of Tennessee, has said that the Covid-19 pandemic could exacerbate the current piracy levels worldwide.

In an article in The Conversation, he noted that eight armed raiders boarded container ship Fouma as she was entering the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador. They fired warning shots at the bridge before boarding the ship, opening several containers, removing various items and then fleeing in two speedboats. Nobody was harmed.

Prins said that armed robbers regularly attacked ships in and around the port of Guayaquil, which handles most of Ecuador’s agricultural and industrial imports and exports.

Ships moored along the port’s quays or transiting its narrow river passages are relatively easy prey.

Prins said that the Guayaquil attack could be part of a trend where piracy was once again becoming more active.

The first three months of 2020 saw a 24% year on year increase in pirate attacks and attempted attacks. “As a scholar of sea piracy, I worry that the coronavirus pandemic may make piracy even more of a problem in the coming months and years”, said Prins.

Modern sea piracy often involved pirates in small fast boats approaching and boarding larger, slower-moving ships to rob them of cargo, or to seize the ship and crew for ransom. There had been various hotspots over the years with varying motives and modus operandi.

The greater Gulf of Aden area off the coast of East Africa became the most dangerous waters in the world for pirate attacks for a few years from 2008, with unemployed fishermen in Somalia recruited by gang masters for hi-jackings. The sustained spate of attacks was eventually defeated by international naval efforts combined with shippers maiking their vessels harder to attack and easier to defend. Last year the International Maritime Bureau reported no successful hijackings in the Greater Gulf of Aden.

The focus then moved to Southeast Asia, particularly the Sulu-Celebes Sea, where economic terrorists combined with Philippines separatists, all under the name Abu-Sayyaf, wnet in for kidnapping rather thanhi-jacking. Better aerial and naval surveillance, plus a hard line from the Philippine administration, has reduced pirate threats here dramatically.

As a result of these efforts, the global number of attacks and attempted attacks dropped significantly over the past decade, from a high of nearly 450 incidents in 2010 to fewer than 165 incidents in 2019 – the lowest number of actual and attempted pirate attacks since 1994. Ship hijackings, the most severe and visible manifestation of sea piracy, also have declined since 2010.

However, Prins said that the Fouma attack was a troubling sign. The sea robbers seemed to have had detailed advance knowledge of the ship’s cargo, as well as its course and the personnel on board. “Those are clues that the pirates planned the attack, likely with help from the crew or others with specific information about the ship”, Prins said, noting that this sort of insider information was “relatively rare in pirate attacks in general, but is common when pirates go after large cargo vessels and tanker ships, as happens in about one-third of pirate attacks”.

Piracy in the waters off of South America – and off West Africa – had been increasing somewhat in recent years. Some of the conditions in those regions were similar to the ones that drove the Somali spike a decade ago: weak governments embroiled in political violence, widespread economic hardship and easy access to weapons.

“Most piracy ultimately affects poor countries with weak governments. That’s because criminals, insurgents and other groups see opportunities to raise money for their land-based battles by stealing from passing ships” said Prins. He gave as an example the militant groups in Nigeria, particularly in the Niger River Delta region and the Gulf of Guinea, who siphoned oil off tanker ships and resell it on the black market.

“With economic hardship striking Venezuela and Brazil, poor and jobless citizens may see opportunities offshore. Weak police and corrupt officials only exacerbate the economic problems”, he said.

The medical and economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic seemed likely to pose severe challenges for countries with few resources and weak governments. West African and South American countries were already struggling to police their territorial waters. Those regions had not yet been severely affected by the coronavirus, though infections are growing on both continents.

As hospitals fill up with Covid-19 patients, the regions’ governments will almost certainly shift their public safety efforts away from sea piracy and toward more immediate concerns on land. That would create opportunities for pirates, said Prins.

In addition, the disease might make it harder for crews to protect ships. Most merchant vessel crews were already stretched thin. If crew members get sick, restrictions on international travel prevent their replacements from meeting the ship in whatever port it is in.

Slowing consumer spending around the globe means less trade, which brings less revenue for shipping companies to spend on armed guards or other methods of protecting ships against pirates. As a result, ships will likely become easier targets for pirates, Prins warned.