March 7, 2010: The international Anti-Piracy patrol is winning the battle for control of the Gulf of Aden, but is still vulnerable in more distant waters. For example, on March 5th, a small tanker was taken north of Madagascar, over a thousand kilometers south of Somalia (and more than 1,500 kilometers from the pirate bases in Puntland). The tanker had travelled from the Persian Gulf, swung east of the Seychelles islands to avoid pirates, and was on its way to Tanzania (just south of Kenya), when it was seized.
Most of the thousand or so pirates in Puntland are not willing, or able, to travel that far to find a vulnerable ship to capture. So most continue playing tag with the foreign warships that escort convoys and guard two shipping channels through the Gulf of Aden. The pirates, shadowed by UAVs and maritime patrol aircraft, are increasingly unable to get near a merchant ship not in sight of a warship. In one case, some four dozen pirate speedboats were closing in on 31 merchant ships being escorted by warships, apparently hoping to overwhelm the security. The warships are not allowed to fire on pirates who are not actually attacking. Chinese warships then showed up, demonstrating an intention to shoot first, and the pirates backed off.
Merchant ships are doing more to defend themselves. It's increasingly common for commercial ships to carry armed security teams. So far this year, four ships so equipped fought off pirate attacks with gunfire. This caused the pirates to retreat.
In response, pirates are increasingly going after smaller, ocean going, fishing boats, to use as mother ships. Towing two or more speedboats behind them, these mother ships can travel to the Seychelles or Madagascar, looking for less well defended, or alert, prey. It's believed that some of these mother ships have arranged to use spies within the shipping and insurance industry, to obtain location information for ships moving around the Seychelles or Madagascar. Shipping traffic is much less out there, compared to the Gulf of Aden, and without specific GPS coordinates, the mother ships could cruise around for weeks without finding suitable prey. In response, the anti-piracy patrol is looking for, tracking, and seizing, mother ships.
It's not easy being a pirate, but the money is still good for those that take a ship.