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A military helicopter and guided missile cruiser guard a Phillipine-flagged ship after fending off a Somali pirate attack in March 2011. Piracy is the subject of an international meeting of experts gathering at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

International experts on piracy are at Dalhousie University in Halifax this week to find a solution to a piracy problem that threatens seafarers as well as international trade and security, and costs the shipping industry billions of dollars annually.

Over the last three decades, high-profile cases of theft and violence at sea range from people fleeing China on boats raided by Thai fishermen in the Gulf of Thailand in the late 1970s, to drug gangs attacking yachts in the Caribbean.

Most people know about the recent problem with Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa, but fewer know about the more deadly recent trend in the waters off West Africa, said Hugh Williamson, who teaches marine affairs at Dalhousie and says piracy costs the shipping industry about $12 billion annually.

"In the Horn of Africa, they are after hostages, they are taking the crew for hostage. In West Africa, they are after the cargos, and so the crew is a liability," said Williamson.

That leads to more violence, and more murders, he said.

As well, off the Horn of Africa, about one-third of pirates are children, some as young as 10 or 11.

"Nobody knows what to do with them," said Williamson. "Under international law, we have to treat children, and children who are being used as criminals, differently than we treat adult criminals. And the problem is that we haven't got the mechanisms in place to deal with them."

That leads to military forces encountering child pirates, but then letting them go, in a sort of "catch and release," said Williamson, adding the problem is "you're returning children to adult criminals."

The issue of child piracy has attracted the interest of Senator Roméo Dallaire's Child Soldiers Initiative, which works toward the prevention of use of children as child soldiers. Dallaire is expected to speak Wednesday at Dalhousie.

Dallaire and his compatriots "don't see major difference between a child soldier and a child pirate," said Williamson. "They are children being used by adults for criminal or political purposes, and they are extremely vulnerable, and there are a lot of them."

The symposium, which began Tuesday, has brought together legal and naval experts, academics, commercial shipping interests and non-government organizations.

The working group is part of the Dalhousie Marine Piracy Project (DMPP), a two-year project on global maritime piracy funded by the TK Foundation and led by the university's Marine Affairs Program in the Faculty of Management.