Sea Transportation: The Pirates Of Puntland Make Sailors Rich


October 14,2008:  Major unions representing crews on major merchant ships, have gotten the shipping companies to double the pay for the days that ships are transiting the piracy prone areas of the Gulf of Aden. Also doubled, for the time moving through dangerous waters, are death and disability benefits. Naturally, the crews of any ships taken will receive the double pay for the time they spend captive. This will cost most ships another $10,000 for each transit of the area, which is about what shipping companies are paying in additional insurance costs for each ship moving through the pirate zone. Not all of the hundred or ships in the danger zone at any given time have unionized crews. But most of the larger ships, most favored by the pirates, do. The worst thing the pirates could do is seize some old rust bucket that has no insurance, and an owner who won't return calls. So the bigger, better maintained, unionized and well insured vessels are the potential prizes.

The U.S. naval officers leading the anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden have already warned shipping companies to take additional precautions, because the 15-20 warships in the Gulf cannot possibly protect all the merchant ships passing through the area. Not only that, but many of the nations who have sent warships to join Task Force 150, have ordered they crews to treat the pirates carefully. In most cases, the sailors are under orders not to "capture" any pirates. British officers were bluntly told that if pirates were taken back to Britain, under current laws, the pirates could claim asylum. Several nations, like India and South Africa, have not sent warships for fear of offending the human rights lobby. Pirates are people too, and they have rights.

The key problem is that no one wants to go ashore and take on the Somali warlords responsible for the surge in piracy. No wonder, as the natural state of Somalia, over the last few centuries, has been violent anarchy. This would be bloody, mainly for the Somalis, and no nation wants to get accused of war crimes and brutality by the media. 

For the last century, however, order was imposed, first by colonial governments, and then by post-colonial dictators. But Somali dictators, unlike colonial rulers, have been unable to maintain their rule over the entire region known as "Somalia." A government of sorts was always found in some of the coastal towns, which enabled trade with the outside world. But this has been threatened by the recent growth of piracy. Some warlords are taking over coastal villages and running piracy operations from them. Local fishermen eagerly join these gangs, seeing the possibility of a huge payday. This is all possible because of the current anarchy. In the past, piracy was suppressed by foreign navies destroying the towns of villages the pirates used as bases. This is no longer politically acceptable, and no one is yet willing to send troops ashore to fight the warlords who created and maintain the pirate operations. The nations with the military forces able to go into Somalia (like the U.S., Britain and France) are well aware of the region's history, and the willingness of the Somalis to just keep fighting.

The availability of speedboats, satellite radio and GPS have made it possible to conduct piracy deep into the Straits of Aden (a major choke point for international shipping). Many nations are sending warships to try and control the pirates at sea, without going ashore. This, and forcing ships to transit the area at high speed, or in convoys, will be expensive, but this is believed to be ultimately able to keep losses down and prevent insurance rates for ships from skyrocketing. It's costing larger ships a few thousand dollars more to move through the Gulf of Aden at a higher, and less efficient, speed.

Russia, however, is sending a warship to join in the anti-piracy effort. The Russian frigate is under orders, according to Russian press officials, to not use violence to regain control of any of the captured ships. The Russian ship will join Task Force 150 (the international naval and air force patrolling the Gulf). The Russian ship is coming from the Baltic, so it won't arrive until later this month. Everyone is curious to see how the Russians will actually deal with the pirates. The Russians often go Old School in cases like this, after first denying they will.

Foreign navies are trying to provide some protection against the growing pirate activity off Somalia's north coast, partly to try and keep insurance rates down. As the risk of ships getting seized in the Gulf of Aden passes one percent, the maritime insurance companies, as expected, have raised premiums (covering passage through the 1,500 kilometer Straits of Aden) from an average of $900 to $9,000. That's expected to go higher because, when you do the math, you realize that the current increase does not quite cover the million dollars per ship ransom (which is also going up.) The insurance increase has made certain that all ships moving through the area are aware of the pirate risk, and more ships are alert enough to spot, and speed away from, the pirates. Most ships moving through the Gulf of Aden have a top speed in excess of what the pirate speedboats can achieve. But the larger ships take time to reach their top speed, and the trick is to rev the engines of the larger ship soon enough to get away from the approaching pirate speedboats. This requires posting more lookouts (because the speedboats are low enough in the water to not show up well, if at all, on the navigation radar of larger ships). The pirates will continue to go after the ships that they can catch, and these will tend to be the smaller and slower ones from poor (often Moslem) nations. That could have interesting repercussions. Many ships, however, are more alert, and getting away from the pirates. In one recent incident, the merchant ship escaped mainly because the pirates did not bring ladders high enough to get them on deck. The merchant ship crew refused to drop the pirates a rope ladder, and soon the merchant ship had gained enough speed to leave the angry pirates behind.

The shipping companies are getting angry about the lack of decisive action against the pirates. But the pirates are not stupid. They know that, as long as they don't kill their captive crews, and just collect the ransoms, they can continue to get away with piracy. So far, most of the pirate casualties have come from gun battles between rival pirate gangs. Apparently there have been some attempts by pirates to steal ships from other pirates. There have also been reports of the Puntland police forming pirate gangs. When asked about this, some Puntland police point out that the government has not been able to pay them for months, and everyone has to make a living. Puntland is a self-declared state in northeastern Somalia. The tribes and clans up there, as in neighboring Somaliland, have negotiated a peace deal that has kept most of the violence out of these two statelets. But piracy has brought back the violence, with million dollar ransoms as an incentive. Over $30 million of ransom money has come into northern Somalia so far this year, and that has gotten the attention of a lot of men with guns.




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