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The first commercial ship hijacking in 5 years: Our fight against piracy isn’t over

Posted on 7th April 2017

A lucky escape for the Comoros-flagged oil tanker crew

This month news broke that Somali pirates had released an oil tanker and crew after the first commercial ship hijacking since 2012. Luckily, the Comoros-flagged oil tanker and eight Sri Lankan crew were freed without payment of ransom, after lengthy negotiations. The release followed a gunfight between the pirates and the marine force, then intensive negotiations between the marine force, clan elders and the pirates.

The release will be seen as a success for the Government of Puntland and its counter-piracy force, which is funded by the United Arab Emirates. Not so successful for the pirates, this story is a stark contrast to the pirates’ heyday in 2011, where Somali pirates launched 237 attacks and held hundreds of hostages off the coast of Somalia, according to data from the International Maritime Bureau.

Hijacked merchant ships used as mother ships to carry out attacks

Oil tankers aren’t the only vessels at risk from piracy, although liner vessels such as container ships and roll-on/roll-off ships are generally considered to be at lower risk for hijackings because of their higher speeds and their height above the water line, they have still historically been targeted by pirates.

More recently, hijacked merchant ships have been used as mother ships to carry out piracy attacks. Typically, pirates will operate multiple, high-powered small boats, using automatic weapons and even grenades to attack a vessel, in an attempt to slow or stop the ship, enabling the pirates to board. In this hijack situation, the pirates typically request a large ransom payment for the safe return of the crew, vessel and cargo.

Tough measures against piracy

Although the majority of piracy attacks take place in in the Gulf of Aden, Somali Basin and the Indian Ocean, vast areas of waters are affected by piracy, making it a real challenge to prevent these serious maritime incidents.

Industry bodies such as the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), already take tough measures against piracy. The implementation of Long-Range Identification and Tracking (LRITsystems has provided important information to the counter-piracy military operation at sea off the Horn of Africa and in the Western Indian Ocean. A pilot project with the European Space Agency enables stakeholders to identify possible non-cooperative targets and an exchange of Vessel Traffic Systems (VTS) data with the participation of Member States in the West Mediterranean Basin, enhances security.

A five-year plan to improve coastguard monitoring and surveillance

On January 15, 2013, the regulation that EMSA was established under, aimed at ensuring a high, uniform and effective level of maritime safety, was amended. Amended regulation 100/2013/EU incorporated a new task in its mandate; facilitating cooperation between the Member States and the Commission by providing relevant vessel positioning and observation data to the national authorities and relevant Union bodies, to facilitate measures against threats of piracy and of intentional unlawful acts.

A 5-year Agency strategy followed in relation to monitoring, surveillance and information sharing, to become a major provider of reliable and efficient information for the maritime community and for this reason, EMSA has been exploring new capabilities offered by technology in the field of maritime surveillance.

Live surveillance data enables quick decisions on piracy intervention actions

In March 2017, as part of a contract valued at EUR 67 million, British maritime technology experts, Martek Marine, were awarded the contract to supply; drones; pilots; long-range antennae; mission control vehicles and ground crew to improve maritime surveillance. Video and drone sensor data will now be streamed live to a control centre, to allow EU Member States to make prompt decisions on piracy intervention actions. Using drone technology in the field of maritime surveillance is an important step forward in terms of the evolution of piracy control and our seas will be much safer as a result.

The emergence of anti-piracy technology

A huge range of anti-piracy, non-lethal weapons are now available on the market. It’s common for vessels to employ a range of these devices, as well as armed guards, when on voyages to areas known for piracy such as the Gulf of Aden. Non-lethal weapons range from pain-inducing acoustic sound beams, to high powered water cannons and electric fences, to ballistic nets, anti-traction materials, razor wire canisters and ever Taser guns.

ECDIS with anti-piracy features as standard

On board technology, such as anti-piracy communications devices are a vital life line in the event of an attack, when the ship’s main communications are inaccessible, or attackers have cut main communications systems on the bridge. In addition, Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS) from reputable suppliers are even starting to come with anti-piracy features built in as standard and system training typically covers detection of a hostile pirate vessel using ECDIS.

With such excellent developments in anti-piracy technology and significant investments into improved coastguard operations, one can hope that piracy attacks will soon become a thing of the past. Until then, its best to err on the side of caution.

To speak to the Martek Marine team about maritime surveillance drones, or Martek’s range of ECDIS products with built-in anti-piracy features, call today.