The Definitive Guide to Maritime Piracy

To some, the word “pirate” seems rather archaic; it evokes images of swashbuckling marauders with gold earrings and hook hands on the decks of old wooden ships. The concept is so old-fashioned that we’ve instead started using the term in a modern context to refer to anyone who engages in copyright infringement.

Beyond children’s birthday parties, the pirates of yore have been romanticised for us in plenty of films – most notably in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, where Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the witty, drunk, and clever Captain Jack Sparrow gave rise to the popularity of old-timey pirates for a new generation.

Sadly, pirates don’t just live on in period pieces and on torrent websites: piracy is still a major issue for shipping merchants in different parts of the world. The 2013 film Captain Phillips helped to bring the issue to the attention of the wider public, and showed that modern pirates may not be braiding their beards or sailing around for rum, but are still wreaking plenty of havoc on the seas.

191 incidents of piracy were recorded worldwide in 2016, but you probably didn’t hear about most of them, if any at all. Maritime piracy receives surprisingly little media attention; considering 90% of international goods are shipped by sea, it would seem that more knowledge on the subject would be useful, since a pirate attack may actually be the reason why those shoes you wanted to buy still haven’t been restocked.

In our definitive guide to piracy at sea, we take a look at the history of pirates, recent piracy in Somalia and other affected regions, and what can be done to help combat this centuries-old threat.

Today's pirates don't look much like Captain Jack Sparrow. Source: GIPHY

Today's pirates don't look much like Captain Jack Sparrow. Source: GIPHY

What is Piracy?

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea describes piracy as such (Part VI, article 101):

“Piracy consists of any of the following acts:

(a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:

(i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;

(ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;

(b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;

(c) any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b).”

A History of Pirates

Pirates were rampant in Ancient Rome and Greece, though the earliest evidence of them dates all the way back to 1350 BC. However, our stereotypical pirate image is based on the Golden Age of Piracy, which encompassed three separate periods of marauding in the late-17th and early-18th centuries.

The first of the three, the Buccaneering Period, occurred in the New World – the present-day Caribbean. The French, British, and Dutch sent privateers to the Spanish-owned territory, hoping to claim land for themselves. These privateers soon engaged in raids, pillaged Spanish colonies, and attacked incoming Spanish ships. The buccaneers planned their strikes from the island of Tortuga with famous pirates such as Henry Morgan leading the charge. The Buccaneering Period finally ended after the Treaty of Ryswick was signed in 1697, ending conflict between the European powers that had been fighting for the New World territory.

With the New World effectively conquered, pirates turned their sights towards lucrative trade from the East instead. The second period in the Golden Age of Piracy, the Pirate Round, was led by Thomas Tew and took place along the coast of Africa and in the Indian Ocean. East India Company ships were taken, prompting the English government to send privateer William Kidd to capture Tew and his fellow marauders. However, the fortunes were so lucrative, with ships passing through those waters worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, that even Kidd himself turned pirate.

The most famous period of the Golden Age occurred in the early 18th century, with the Post Spanish Succession Period. While the previous periods saw the emergence of legal piracy in the form of privateering, and semi-legal piracy in capturing enemy ships, after the War of Spanish Succession there was relative peace in Europe, and the pirates operating during that time were true outlaws. Though there were no major conflicts taking place in their home countries, sailors were dissatisfied with the poor living conditions on ships and turned to piracy; the life of a pirate was short, but it signified freedom. It was only once popular pirate territories were seized and the European powers became fed up with their privateers that pirates began to flee. The Golden Age of Piracy came to an end by 1720.

One of the most brutal pirates during this age was Captain Edward Low, who captured plenty of ships in both the Caribbean and Indian Ocean. Rather than expanding his own fleet, he preferred to burn the captured ships and violently torture their crews.

Other than some British piracy off the Persian Gulf in the 19th century, and a spate of attacks in the Sulu Archipelago during US Colonial rule of the Philippines, pirates were not a major cause of concern for centuries after the end of the Golden Age of Piracy.

What Kinds of Piracy Laws Are in Place?

Despite the relative calm in pirate attacks in the 20th century, the United Nations still included the subject of piracy in its 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It sets forth that all member states should cooperate on preventing piracy on the high seas, and that ships suspected of piracy may be seized by a nation’s warships or military aircraft.

However, the UNCLOS only defines piracy as occurring on the high seas, and thus any attacks taking place within twelve nautical miles of a country’s coast can only be dealt with by the country in question. This is particularly relevant in modern piracy, where attacks often take place within archipelagos or within territorial seas. More recently, the UN Security Council has passed resolutions to curb piracy in specific regions, like Somalia and the Gulf of Guinea, which allow some member states to enter territorial waters in order to prevent armed robberies.

The International Maritime Organization has also called on its member states in recent years to support each other in the fight against piracy by adequately training seafarers, investigating and reporting incidents of piracy in their jurisdictions, and supporting at-risk nations who cannot afford to patrol the affected waters on their own.

It’s not so clear what happens to pirates after they are captured. Since they may be caught by foreign nations patrolling far off seas, the capturing nations do not always want to bring the pirates to their own land to try them there. On the other hand, varying levels in punishment may make the capturing nations reluctant to return the pirates to their country of origin. As was the case with the Danish Navy in 2008, pirates may simply be set free rather than be dragged through a daunting and complicated legal process.

Modern Day Pirates

In the late 1990s, reports of pirate attacks began appearing more frequently once again. The downfall of the Somali government in 1991 led to its waters, rife with marine life, being controlled by various militias from different coastal regions who each had different rules about fishing in the area. Piracy re-emerged as a means of protecting local waters from illegal foreign fishing boats, but has since become much more widespread.

Piracy exploded in the 21st century, with a 68% increase in pirate attacks between 2000 and 2006 compared to the previous six years. That number could be even higher: as many as 50% of attacks go unreported in order to avoid higher insurance premiums. As a result, this lack of reporting and punishment of pirates does little to deter future attacks.

A study by Rand in 2008 highlighted the main causes of this surge in piracy as “the explosive growth in maritime traffic, narrow and congested chokepoints, the difficulty of surveillance at sea, poor coastal and port-side security, corrupt officials, widely available small arms, and the Asian financial crisis”.

You won't find pirates on ships like this nowadays.

You won't find pirates on ships like this nowadays.

Unlike the pirates of yore, modern day pirates are not as focused on the cargo being transported, preferring instead to empty the ship’s safe and steal the crew’s belongings, including passports. Occasionally they repaint the hull and sell the ship with forged documents. These ships can also be used as the “mother ships” from which powerboats full of pirates are sent on their attacks.

Increasingly, pirates have been demanding ransom once they have successfully boarded a ship. They’ve also become more well-informed: in an interview with Wired in 2009, a Somali pirate revealed that piracy groups in the region do research beforehand to determine which ships are the most valuable based on cargo or the nationality of the crew. They then start by demanding a high ransom price to be paid either by governments, shipping lines, or ship owners. However, the longer it takes for the pirates to receive the ransom, the lower it will be, as the likelihood of harm to the crew or ship increases. Thankfully, most modern day pirates have not turned to brutal violence against the captured ship’s crews, as Captain Low’s band of pirates engaged in centuries ago: with ransoms now worth hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, crews have become a valuable asset for the pirates.

Piracy in Somalia and the Gulf of Aden

Somali pirates may now be the most well-known modern pirates, thanks in part to the film Captain Phillips, but it wasn’t until the end of the 2000s that the number of attacks in the Gulf of Aden region really became staggering. From 2007 to 2008, Somali pirate attacks more than doubled from 51 to 111, and almost doubled again with 217 attacks in 2009; in that year, there were more reported attacks off the Somali coast alone than the entire rest of the world.

So if there were so many incidents with pirates in 2009, why didn’t the general population hear about more of them?

For one, only a third of attempted hijacks are successful. And you probably won’t notice a direct impact on any shipped goods, as in 2008 only 0.2% of ships travelling through the area were hijacked.

Somalia has been fragmented since 1991. Without any agreed-upon laws regarding coastal waters, different regions of the country have reacted differently to the entrance of foreign fishing vessels in the area. Militias were deployed to get rid of boats deemed to be shipping illegally, in an attempt to protect Somali fisherman who now had to compete for high-value marine life in their own territories.

As the presence of foreign fishing vessels has continued, and other ships have dumped toxic waste in the region, many Somali fishers and other young men have turned to piracy as a means of survival. They are hired by wealthy warlords and criminals to carry out attacks in exchange for a cut of what can be an enormous ransom. Back in 2008, it was not uncommon for pirate groups to receive $1 million or more in ransom for the safe release of the crew; that kind of money goes a long way in a country where many citizens are dependent on food aid.

In 2008, the United Nations finally took direct action to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden. The Security Council passed Resolution 1816, which encouraged navies in the area to be vigilant of acts of piracy, and called upon the International Maritime Organization to help effectively train crews on avoiding pirates and dealing with attacks should they occur.

Plenty more resolutions have been passed since, but for years they were incredibly effective. Piracy in the region was reduced by 90% between 2012 and 2013, with zero successful hijacks in 2013. In the last nine years, 295 suspected pirates have been caught. Unfortunately, 2017 has seen several successful pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia again, though the International Maritime Bureau speculated that these were opportunistic attacks upon vessels who were not following the best practices laid out by UN resolutions. Nonetheless, special advisor to the IMO secretary-general on maritime security and facilitation Chris Trelawny warned that Somali piracy is still a threat, and is currently only being contained by the extensive measures that have been implemented to combat it.

Captain Phillips helped to bring more awareness to the issue of piracy in Somalia. Source: GIPHY

Captain Phillips helped to bring more awareness to the issue of piracy in Somalia. Source: GIPHY

Piracy in Southeast Asia

The South China Sea is home to some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, with $5 trillion worth of goods passing through it every year. The rise in trade in the region has created massive congestion, especially in the bottleneck Strait of Malacca, leading to higher levels of crime. The South China Sea has been the site of major territorial disputes over the past few decades; and while China’s “nine-dotted line” claim in the sea was refuted in 2016, there is still ambiguity over which waters belong to which country, and what part of the sea should be considered international waters. This has made controlling and eliminating piracy in the area much more difficult.

As in Somalia, many Indonesian pirates turned to crime after the country’s currency crisis in 1997 in order to make a living; petty thefts of the crew’s money and belongings are still common in ports. In the Strait of Malacca in particular, oil tankers are common targets, with the cargo being stolen and sold for large sums of money.

Between 2010 and 2012, Southeast Asia had the second-highest number of incidents of piracy at sea after only Somalia, and actually had the most attacks of any region in the world in 2013. In fact, no place on earth has seen as many piracy incidents as Southeast Asia since 1995, though the fact that half of them occurred with no threat of violence may explain why the region isn’t commonly known as a piracy hotspot.

The International Maritime Bureau has reported several Southeast Asia attacks already in 2017, particularly around the Philippines. These hijackings appear to be more sophisticated and perhaps backed by militants, similar to the situation in Somalia. With continued lack of cooperation and common understanding between the affected countries, it will be difficult to stop piracy in the region.

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

While piracy off the coast of Somalia was being contained, it was booming in West Africa. According to IMB’s 2016 annual report, the number of Somali attacks dropped sharply after 2012, while they stayed consistently high in Nigeria, culminating with 36 attacks in 2016 (second only to Indonesia with 49).

Because of corruption in their home country, Nigerian pirates are more brazen with less fear of repercussion; the Gulf of Guinea lies in territorial waters, making international defence of the region complicated. Pirates in the area are known to be more violent because rather than holding hostages for ransom, they prefer simply to steal and sell the ships’ cargo, often oil. However, as oil prices have declined, Nigerian pirates have begun to turn to more lucrative kidnappings instead. In the first quarter of 2017, 63% of worldwide seafarer kidnappings occurred in the Gulf of Guinea.

Other Recent Pirate Attacks

Depending on where you’re reading this, piracy at sea can feel like something that happens far from home. That doesn’t mean maritime piracy only happens on the high seas: while not officially falling under the definition of piracy because they occur in territorial waters, there are still hijack attempts in bodies of water farther inland, such as Falcon Lake on the US-Mexican border, or the Danube River in Eastern Europe. While there may not be huge cargo at stake in such areas, there are still plenty of fishermen or tourists for pirates to rob.

The Effects of Piracy

Piracy is an expensive business. It can be especially lucrative for the pirates: Somali pirates made around $120 million annually between 2008 and 2013, which is not surprising when you consider that ships and crews are usually ransomed for several million dollars each. At the same time, they cost the industry anywhere from $900 million to $3.3 billion, though Oceans Beyond Piracy estimated that number to be twice as high at $5.7 to $6.1 billion in 2012, the year after Somali piracy was at its peak.

The same OBP report lists the following nine factors as contributing to the cost of piracy: ransoms and recovery, military operations, security equipment and guards, re-routing, increased speed, labour, prosecutions and imprisonment, insurance, and counter-piracy organizations. In 2012, the most costly of those were military operations, security, and increased speed, all with a price tag of over $1 billion.

Luckily, over time, the cost of Somali piracy has gone down significantly, but it still clocked in at $1.7 billion in 2016 when there were almost no reported attacks.

The German Institute for Economic Research argues that piracy isn’t just profitable for pirates, but that insurance companies benefit as well. Shippers operating in pirate-rich waters need to buy two types of insurance: War Risk insurance, which is required for passing through the affected areas; and Kidnap and Ransom (K&R) Insurance, which protects the crew and helps pay ransom demands. Both premiums cost thousands of dollars each per ship.

Piracy doesn’t just cost money for the shippers who choose to, or must, operate in dangerous shipping lanes: it also affects the honest citizens in the home countries of the pirates. As piracy in the Gulf of Guinea rose to an estimated cost of $2 billion, the port of Cotonou in Benin saw a 70% decline in visiting vessels. For a country whose governmental budget revenues are 80% derived from oil production, this can have serious consequences for the welfare of the Beninese. Meanwhile, in war-torn Somalia, ships sent by the World Food Programme to provide crucial food relief have been hijacked.

How Can We Prevent Piracy at Sea?

The UNCLOS back in 1982 called on member states to unite in the fight against piracy, but it didn’t outline how. Since piracy wasn’t a big issue for most of the 20th century, and since times had dramatically changed since the Golden Age of Piracy, there wasn’t a standard set of practices that ship owners, shipping lines, and governments could implement in order to protect crew members.

That all changed once large ships became the subject of attacks off the coast of Somalia in the early 2000s. Suddenly the maritime security industry flourished: boats were outfitted with anything from electric fences to water cannons to sound guns to lasers. Eventually ships were being manned by armed guards.

Considering the main causes of piracy are related to unstable governments and unfavourable economic conditions in the affected areas, the international community has stepped up to help patrol pirate-infested waters. In 2008, the Internationally Recognized Transit Corridor safe zone was established and patrolled by navies from the United States, European Union countries, and more. It was also coordinated patrol efforts by the governments of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia that helped nearly eradicate piracy in the Strait of Malacca. Even the US military underwent joint training with West African navies to help them be better prepared for situations in the Gulf of Guinea and “build maritime security capacity”.

Crews now also frequently undergo training for how to handle a pirate situation, including what to do as a potential hostage. When the M/V Magellan Star was captured by pirates in 2010, the crew simply turned off the engine and barricaded themselves in a safe room on the ship. They’re also instructed to sail through dangerous areas as fast as possible, making it harder for pirates to catch up.

Possibly one of the most effective ways to combat piracy is to go to the root of the problem and eliminate the causes and sources; piracy is usually related to other forms of crime, and therefore needs to be fought both on land and at sea. Aid organizations have helped to train young men in at-risk countries so they will find work other than piracy. Kenyan military intervention has been cited as one of the major reasons Somali piracy was drastically reduced. This could also be crucial in helping to curtail piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, where other efforts have so far been less successful.

Unfortunately, the success of some of these measures can lead to complacency. The decrease in piracy may lead some countries to remove their naval patrols under the assumption that the problem has been solved, but reducing the patrols could simply lead to a pirate resurgence.

Piracy at sea is still a threat. While there isn’t much we can do as individuals, it’s important to stay aware and informed so we can support leaders and organizations working to eliminate the problem and improve the conditions that have led to modern day pirates in the first place.