Sea Transportation: Pirates Plunder the Dark Side


February 6, 2006: Pirate attacks declined last year, from 329 in 2004, to 276 in 2005. But maybe they didn't. The increased attention paid to the problem has revealed another world of piracy, in the shadows of the criminal underworld. It seems that pirates also go after smugglers, illegal fishing (very common in some areas) and drug runners. When these ships are grabbed, the owners don't report it. When intelligence agencies went looking for information on piracy, they found a lot of "chatter" about illegal shipping operations having problems with pirates. Makes sense. These ships are carrying illegal, very valuable, and usually very portable, cargoes. Drugs, guns, and illegal consumer goods are out there for the taking. Moreover, these good are usually carried in smaller ships, that a few boatloads of gunmen have an easier time taking down. While the smugglers (who sometimes belong to terrorist organizations) are often armed, they can be surprised at night by more numerous pirates. And best of all, these guys are not going to call the local coast guard for assistance. So you can take your time catching them, if it turns into a chase.

This is all good for legitimate shipping, as the reported piracy incidents are now at their lowest since 1999. However, the number of vessels hijacked, 23, was the highest since 2002. On the bright side, no crewmen were killed last year, compared to 30 in 2004. However, 12 crewmen were reported missing last year, and are probably dead.

While pirate attacks declined in most parts of the world, they were up in some areas, notably Somalia, Tanzania, Iraq and Vietnam. Of particular note was Iraq, where attacks went from none in 2004, to ten last year. But the most dangerous waters are those off Somalia, which saw 35 attacks last year. Another new trend is holding sailors for ransom. Last year, in Somalia, Indonesia and Nigeria, 440 sailors suffered that fate, and some of them are still being held.

In most parts of the world, the decline was largely attributable to more vigilant and better equipped crews. Ships have been warned to be particularly alert when off the coasts of Bangladesh, India, Singapore, Jamaica, Haiti and Peru. And to stay away from Somalia at all costs.


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