Sea Transportation: Even Pirates Do Good Works


February 20, 2014: The Somali pirates were not an unmitigated disaster. The Somali pirates have cost the shipping industry (and its customers, meaning just about everyone) over $50 billion in the past decade. Most of that money was for the additional security measures. Several good things came out of this mess. For one thing there was an unprecedented international naval and legal effort to thwart the pirates. Another benefit was that the captivity of thousands of merchant sailors brought international attention to a nasty little problem that is usually ignored; shipping companies abandoning their ships and crews in distant ports. During the last ten years about 20 ships a year, and 200-300 sailors are abandoned by the ship owners. This means that these cargo ships (they are usually small, elderly vessels) are literally abandoned by their owners, usually for financial reasons. These elderly ships are barely profitable and when there’s a worldwide economic slump (as happened after 2008 and, for the shipping industry, continues) it means less is being shipped by sea and rates for carrying cargo decline. This makes marginal vessels unsustainable.

The seagoing shipping industry is huge, generating nearly $400 billion in revenues a year. There are nearly 90,000 ships (of 100 gross tons or more). That’s over a billion tons of shipping. This gave rise to the growing number of tragic situations with poor management and abandoned crews. This is a problem that has been growing for a century. That’s because of the impact of radio in the early 20th century. Radio (or “wireless telegraph”) revolutionized naval affairs, both military and commercial. It was now possible for ship owners to keep in constant touch with their ships, making the operation more efficient, but also eliminating the personal touch. Crews often never actually see the owners and the only contact if via commands (and cash wired to local banks for the crew payroll and other ship expenses) from the home office. That made the abandoned ship a growing problem, especially after World War II when many more countries could afford merchant fleets and many of these new countries had rather more lax legal systems.

The typical pattern is for small shipping companies with only a few small, barely profitable ships that start to lose money and one day the owners decide it is time to shut down and just walk away. Literally. Take what money there is and disappear. Suddenly their ships, or maybe just one of them, no longer receives any messages, or cash, from the home office. This strands the ship in whatever its next port of call is. In some nations this means that the crew is confined to the ship until the courts and lawyers can figure out what to do. This can take months or years and in the meantime the crew will go hungry and get sick because the ship runs out of food and fuel and cannot afford electricity or other services. Now many nations have welfare systems for this sort of thing but many do not and these are the ships where sailors die or commit suicide because of their unfair and unexpected indefinite imprisonment.

Some of the ships the pirates hijacked were abandoned by their owners, usually because the owners had no hijacking insurance and could not afford to pay a ransom. So the captured ship was quietly abandoned. Even the pirates thought this cruel but they were stuck with the hungry and penniless sailors and a ship that wasn’t worth much more than scrap. The UN was forced to confront this ship abandonment problem because of the piracy connection and now there is an effort underway to create some international laws to cover this sort of thing and at least prevent the innocent crews from paying a high price for no good reason.

Meanwhile the anti-piracy patrol has been a huge success. Since 2012 the Somali pirates have been unable to capture a large commercial ship. Even smaller fishing ships and dhows (small local cargo ships of traditional construction) are harder for them to grab. The rapid collapse of the Somali pirates since 2011 was no accident. It was all a matter of organization, international cooperation and innovation. It all began back in 2009 when 80 seafaring nations formed (with the help of a UN resolution) the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. The most visible aspect of the Contact Group was the organization of an anti-piracy patrol off the Somali coast. This came to consist of over two dozen warships and several dozen manned and unmanned aircraft, as well as support from space satellites and major intelligence and police agencies. This has got a lot of countries to work together at sea for the first time and it has benefitted all the participants. The officers running the participating ships are now encouraged to undertake even more international operations.





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