The growing problem with piracy and maritime crime

It's troubling news for a world where 80 per cent of international goods travel by sea. Far from a relic, piracy thrives in many corners where maritime authorities are weak and the potential for a lucrative haul is strong.
Small boats are seen alongside a Ukrainian ship that was seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia in this photo released in 2008 by the U.S. navy. ((U.S. navy/Associated Press))

At more than 330 metres in length, the Sirius Star is a massive vessel, one rivalling the size of a U.S. aircraft carrier.

Yet in November 2008, pirates seized the Saudi-owned supertanker. The largest pirate capture to date, the Sirius Star carried a full load — an estimated two million barrels of oil worth more than $100 million US.

And it happened more than 800 kilometres off the coast of Kenya, well beyond where Somali pirates usually operate.

The Sirius Star, shown in an undated photo, was seized by pirates in 2008 while carrying an estimated two million barrels of oil worth more than $100 million US. ((Daewoo/Associated Press))

"The world has never seen anything like this.… The Somali pirates have hit the jackpot," Andrew Mwangura, who has been monitoring piracy for years as co-ordinator of the East African Seafarers' Association, told Reuters.

It's troubling news for a world where 80 per cent of international goods travel by sea. Far from a historical relic, piracy lurks in many corners of the world where maritime authorities are weak and the potential for a lucrative haul is strong. ( Map: World piracy hot zones )

"Piracy is not going away," Peter Chalk, an international security analyst at the RAND Institute, a U.S.-based think-tank, told Forbes magazine in a June 2008 article. "In fact, it's getting more serious and more violent, and it's only a matter of time before you need to take it more seriously."

Somalia's piracy crisis

While the scale of the Sirius Star heist was unprecedented, this type of piracy has become an ever-increasing menace for maritime traffic in the waters of East Africa. More than 16,000 ships travel the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia each year.

 Sea piracy in 2008
  • 293 piracy incidents.
  • 49 vessels hijacked.
  • 46 vessels fired upon.
  • 889 crew members taken hostage.
  • 32 crew members injured.
  • 11 crew members killed.
  • 21 crew members missing and presumed dead.
 (Source: International Maritime Bureau)

Piracy off the coast of Somalia more than doubled so far this year, with 63 incidents reported as of the end of September. The area ranks as the world's No. 1 problem, dwarfing other traditional hot spots, such as Nigeria and Indonesia, according to the International Maritime Bureau, which tracks piracy incidents.

Somalia's pirates are well-organized and connected with warlords operating in the country, Daniel Sekulich, a journalist and expert on modern-day piracy, told CBC News.

"A misconception is that pirates are somehow haphazard individuals," Sekulich said. Even if they begin that way, the pirates quickly gain experience — and money from stolen cargo and ransoms.

Many have become established criminal operations, equipped with GPS technology, satellite phones and speedy boats.

Age-old problem renewed

Piracy is nothing new of course; it dates back almost to the first time humans travelled by sea.

Personnel from a Malaysian police amphibious unit conduct a joint anti-piracy training exercise with Japanese and Thai forces near the Bay of Bengal in 2007. ((Andy Wong/Associated Press))

But after being curtailed greatly in the 20th century, the problem has spread with a vengeance since the end of the Cold War, when many countries scaled back on their naval operations.

In the early '90s, the United Nations reported roughly 100 incidents worldwide per year, mostly on the South China Sea and in Southeast Asia. By the end of the decade, however, that number jumped by almost 450 per cent.

After some decline in the middle of this decade, piracy appears to be on the rise again. In 2008, the number of incidents jumped to 293, an 11 per cent increase from 2007.

However, many organizations say the actual rate of piracy is much higher because a large amount of criminal activity goes unreported. Some organizations estimate the real price tag of piracy is as high as $16 billion US.

The pirate trade, of course, has a more human cost as well. Experts say the bandits have become bolder and more aggressive in tactics in recent years. For example, the number of pirate incidents involving guns nearly doubled in a year, from 72 in 2007 to 139 in 2008.

World piracy hot zones

While maritime crime thrives in Somalia and along its frequently lawless 3,300-kilometre coastline, the country is not alone in its fight against piracy.

Incidents are reported from Peru to the Philippines in recent years, as the map below shows.

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More: The International Maritime Bureau's live piracy map tracks all incidents reported to the bureau in 2008.