Piracy on the Rise

Piracy may have played second fiddle to maritime terrorist attacks and threats in recent weeks, but there is a worrying rise in attacks off SE Asia, concerns that the tinder of piracy may reignite in Somalia, and the fear that reports are being suppressed in West Africa.

ReCAAP Information Sharing Centre (ReCAAP ISC) recorded 106 piracy incidents in Southeast Asia in the first half of 2015 (1H15), an increase of 18% year on year. Out of the 106 incidents, six cases were classified as attempted incidents, while the remaining 100 cases were actual incidents. The bulk in this period was petty thefts, although there were 10 severe, or Category 1 incidents, involving fuel/oil siphoning and hijacking.

The IMB has stated that a small coastal tanker is hijacked by pirates in South East Asia every two weeks. Their new report found that South East Asia accounted for 55 per cent of the world’s 54 piracy and armed robbery incidents since the start of 2015.

The report also found that after a steady drop in global piracy over the last few years, attacks rose 10% in the first quarter of 2015. Worldwide, pirates took 140 hostages in the first three months of 2015, three times as many as during the same period in 2014.

Over in Somalia there are concerns that the recent quiet spell could be coming to an end. According to the United Nations, 67% of Somalis aged 14-29 are unemployed. While 70 percent of Somalia’s population is under the age of 30. There are fears of new threats emerging as a result of the enmeshment of pirate groups with jihadist networks. There is a risk that impressionable, disillusioned young men could be radicalised,” it warned. They are ripe to be turned to crime or terrorism, and that has to be a major concern.

This especially concerning as a report from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre says that shipping patterns in the region have returned to what they were before the height of pirate attacks. The paper shows that vessels have increasingly returned to sailing along the shortest route, closer to the Somali coast along which pirates had been based, at slower and more-efficient speeds, thereby lowering fuel consumption and cutting transport costs.

Incredibly vessels are putting themselves potentially back in the sights of pirates once more, and while the risks may be low – they are still there.

Nigeria Kind of Ends Piracy

A rather miraculous thing seems to have happened in Nigeria since President Buhari came to power. Since taking the nation’s reins, it appears that piracy has stopped in Nigerian waters. Or that pirates have been “sleeping”, as it has been euphemistically termed by the local press.

While this is being hailed as something of an incredible coup – it seems that the truth may be somewhat different…and it seems more likely that Nigeria has put an end to reporting, rather than having cured piracy.

According to observers, attacks have been going unreported as the nation has been wrestling to cope with the change in personnel at the top of all its armed forces and NIMASA.

It is one of the oldest tricks in the book – if bad things keep happening and they are causing embarrassment, simply bury your head in the sand and pretend they aren’t happening. A response which is cheap, simple and effective!

Alas though it is a means of tackling crime that will only get you so far. At some point, piracy in Nigeria needs action. While it is cute to give the new President the boost of being the saviour of maritime security, it will look even more embarrassing when the pirate attacks do get noted.

Now, it could be that pirates are seeing the lie of the political landscape, and seeing what happens until the Presidential dust settles. As a result there has been a flurry of activity just outside Nigerian waters – with IMB reporting 10 attacks in the region. So it seems the pirates have not gone away completely, they have just shifted for a while.

Surprise Tanker Ban

Not content with suppressing pirates, Nigeria has set its sights on tankers too. The state oil company NNPC last month banned 113 oil tankers from the country’s waters, citing a directive from new President Muhammadu Buhari. It was claimed that the move came as part of efforts to crack down on illegal crude oil trading.

The vessels, which include mainly VLCCs, are banned from calling at Nigerian oil terminals and also from Nigerian waters with immediate effect, said a letter circulated by NNPC, “pending a notice to the contrary by government”.

In addition, Buhari has dissolved the NNPC board and ordered an investigation into a scheme through which the country swaps crude for oil products such as gasoline. The sweeping changes have not stopped there, as the President has also taken a broom to the armed forces and commercial shipping too.

He has fired Nigeria’s Chief of Defence, and the heads of Army, Navy and the Air Force. In addition, the appointment of Patrick Ziakede Akpobolokemi as Director-General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) has also been terminated.

The tanker ban has certainly been a shock to owners, and the industry association INTERTANKO, whose independent members own the majority of the world’s tanker fleet claims there no “evidence or grounds” for the ban. It has been stated that the current understanding is that these ships may have been targeted due to a failure to provide official outturn figures at their last call and/or commercial differences between load and discharge figures for cargo and free water.

Experts have stressed that the timing of the ban is clearly a political signal to show the Buhari administration is clamping down on oil theft. While there is pressure for the Nigerians to justify the ban, that is based on the assumption that they feel like explaining themselves. Which in a political firestorm is unlikely to be the case – the ban has seemingly been brought about not to particularly target tanker owners, but to impact Nigerian interests.

As with most kinds of domestic dispute, it is often the innocent by-standers which get caught in the problem, and it can be difficult to break free. With growing pressure it is to be hoped that the ban does not last too much longer –but that will likely depend not on the outside world, but on the success of Buhari’s internal power play.

Problems with PMSCs

Some believe that if piracy does flare again in the Indian Ocean, then owners will simply turn to private maritime security companies (PMSCs) once more. Nice idea in theory – but it may be problematic, as fears emerge that many of the PMSCs that remain in business have become embroiled in a terrible “race to the bottom”.

One of the most cutthroat and competitive industry’s ever to emerge has continued to “eat itself” as companies have cut costs and standards to win contracts.

UK-based intelligence company Dryad Maritime reckons the race to the bottom in pricing has left some shipowner/operators and charterers spending money on ineffective or even unsafe armed solutions. The lure of cheap security is obvious, but cost is not a good indicator of quality…Dryad likens the issue to buying a cheap parachute. It may not matter when you aren’t using it, but the minute you pull the cord, you may regret cutting corners.

Maritime security brokerage ASKET echoes these concerns, stating that with a pricing war underway firms are cutting corners in a dangerous way. Emma Mitchell of ASKET reports that market pricing for security services is at an all-time low, and states that the ruthless nature of the PMSC business means the industry may only just be paying enough to ensure it is compliant and credible.

Even where PMSCs may be of the requisite standard, it seems that many are tinkering with contracts to the detriment of their clients. BIMCO has claimed that some PMSCs are using ‘non-authentic’ copies of its Guardcon contract.

The shipowner’s body says in a few cases these “homemade” versions of Guardcon use wording that is different to that found in the genuine document and may lessen the liabilities and responsibilities of PMSCs. “As these changes are not clearly marked in the text…it may be quite difficult for a shipowner to detect the differences,” BIMCO warned.

Thus the problems for owners assessing the threat of attack and the risk of protecting against it means that there are headaches and potential problems at most turns. Security firms have proven themselves to be almost adept at destroying their industry as they are at tackling pirates. It is a real shame that so many have taken to fixating on their competition, rather than on the needs of their clients. There are good PMSCs out there, but they are increasingly thin on the ground.

Shipping in the Spotlight

The New York Times has being running a fascinating series of articles on shipping. Absorbing though the pieces have been, they are highly critical of shipping, with a range of uncomfortable allegations being made.

According to the first article in the series, “Few places on the planet are as lawless as the high seas, where egregious crimes are routinely committed with impunity”. The article stresses that despite the global economy being ever more dependent on a fleet of 100,000 large merchant ships, today’s maritime laws lack teeth, while thousands of seafarers, fishermen or sea migrants die suspiciously annually.

The series opened with a hard hitting expose of what they term a “scofflaw” vessel- a ship which pays no regard to the rule of law, to convention or the ways of the sea. The scene is set as two Tanzanian stowaways, unfortunately having chosen the wrong ship – the “Dona Liberta”, are set adrift out at sea. The Master and crew seemingly immune to the fact they could well be putting them to death out in the ocean.

Author, Ian Urbina, goes on to explain the weaknesses in the rule of law on the high seas, and of the many vessels which plough their commercial furrow with only the merest nod to compliance with the rules. Out at sea, runs the argument, no-one is policing compliance, no-one is holistically taking responsibility for shipping and there is no requirement to report violent crimes committed in international waters.

The black marks against shipping run deeper. The article claims that “On average, a large ship sinks every four days and between 2,000 and 6,000 seamen die annually, typically because of avoidable accidents linked to lax safety practices. Ships intentionally dump more engine oil and sludge into the oceans in the span of three years than that spilled in the “Deepwater Horizon” and “Exxon Valdez” accidents combined…and emit huge amounts of certain air pollutants, far more than all the world’s cars”.

In essence this is a tale of weak rules, poor oversight and violence on the high seas. Alas while the article finds many, many holes in the way things are done – answers are rather less forthcoming. Though the shipping industry has been rallying to find them.

Depressing View of Shipping

For all the NY Times pieces make fascinating reading, the scaremongering tone isn’t helpful. This has inevitably prompted the industry to leap to shipping’s defence. However, in the rush on the defensive perhaps we shouldn’t ignore the chance to soberly reflect and enter into positive debate on standards, safety, the environment and issues such as flag State responsibilities.

Unfortunately by focusing on death, destruction and mayhem, the NY Times has made it all too easy for shipping to fight its corner. In rattling the cage too dramatically, we just hear that all is well and it isn’t anything like the horror show painted by the attack journalists.

In truth the bad is just as awful as painted, but is a tiny percentage of the problem. There are good shipowners – they care about their people, the environment, their company image and of how they operate. There are average owners who occasionally care about all those factors too – but not often all at the same time.

But we shouldn’t gloss over the fact that there are bad owners too. People and companies that care purely about money…they want the maximum cash in for the minimum effort out. They don’t care about the rules, or of their seafarers, or of their vessels – they run rusty, old, broken ships as long as they can get away with it.

However, as with all bell curves, we shouldn’t be looking at the edges – the horrific and the glorious. We should be focusing on the big fat distribution in the middle…the everyday, run of the mill, happy go lucky, usually safe, usually clean, usually non-abandoning of seafarers, vessels which make up the vast majority of the global fleet.

Shipping does suffer from problems – but the articles have backed the shipping industry into a corner and they have come out fighting – which is a shame. Of course bad news sells and readers only really want tales of murdered stowaways and environmental destruction. The less dramatic truth would probably not got the author a shout at a Pulitzer, nor pulled readers into the paper.

So we are left with shipping’s image tarnished and experts becoming red in the face arguing about the attack on the collective reputation of an industry…but ultimately with such extremes in play, it seems unlikely that any real positive change will occur. Which is a missed opportunity for us all.

Time for Change

Shipping has been quick to stress the great strides which have been made, while shipping’s naysayers point to evidence of deaths, fatigue, spills, collisions and accidents as clear signs that not everything in the Octopus’s’ garden is rosy.

The industry backlash to the NY Times articles is unsurprising – but while the PR mechanism may limit damage, the fact remains that such depictions are a chance to respond not by decrying the reporting, but by recognising the problems which are highlighted and assessing how to tackle them.

One major problems is that shipping is a conveyor belt of international trade and consumers will accept goods regardless of how they got to be in the store. Perhaps ensuring consumers understand the implications of using sub-standard vessels, then there can be a change. Maybe?

Alas even a consumer revolution would only ever fix one part of the problem with subpar shipping. Until there are robust means by which laws can be applied and policed, then the problems will simply rumble on. It is pleasing to note that the past year has seen some real strides being made with regards to human rights at sea. By turning the focus back onto the seafarers who suffer, we can make it a human interest story, we can make people understand and empathise.

It seems the real focus of change needs to be to ensure that the bad owners can’t operate with impunity and without regard for law and standards, and that charterers won’t use them – and that somehow consumers can be persuaded from buying what arrives on them. But while that may be fine for giant plasma TVs on the shelves of a local superstore, it is not so easy when it is bags of cement, or loads of bauxite. Who should care and who knows how to care then?

Port State control has done a great job of tightening the noose on bad owners. But there are areas of the world without these policing mechanisms, and that is where the world of “dark shipping” resides. These are the ships which slip between the cracks of all the world’s best efforts and interests.

Perhaps it is time to expend more energy shining our own light onto the dark areas of shipping, rather than fighting to discredit and dismiss journalistic clickbait.

Port Calls Mean Work Not Fun

Shoreleave is considered one of the most time honoured and important aspects of being a seafarer. But crews all too often become caged by the rules and often dread the added work which ports bring.

As illustration, seafarers who fail to obtain shore leave in the US are generally stuck on their ships by visa issues, according to a new survey.  An issue which was highlighted by the 14th annual Shore Leave Survey, released last month by the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) Center for Seafarers’ Rights. The US requirements for non-nationals to obtain crewmember visas for shore leave are well known and decried across the industry – but they are actually also in conflict with the FAL Convention.

Thankfully, some concessions to seafarers have emerged. The “Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010” states that facilities implement a system for providing access through the facility that enables individuals to transit to and from a vessel moored at the facility and the facility gate in a timely manner and at no cost to the individuals.

This is a major change and development for industry – no longer will seafarers visiting facilities in the United States be held in the equivalent of solitary confinement. The guarantee of access to shoreleave is to be held, which should be good news for all. But it seems seafarers are concerned that shoreleave is often not worth the hassle.

Historically we would perhaps have expected seafarers to enjoy the time when their vessel arrived into a port. However, that no longer seems universally true. With increasing time constraints and pressures, multiple inspections, cargo work, security demands, and the various ports authorities to deal with, then the stress and workload in port are ramping up to almost unsustainable levels.

Seafarers are increasingly dreading port calls rather than looking forward to them – which is a sad indictment of the way in which life at sea has evolved.

Expanding Suez Canal Threats

There has been a troubling descent into maritime chaos in the Mediterranean of late, most notably off the coast of North Africa. From the tragic deaths of innocent holiday makers in Tunisia, through to air strikes on tankers loading cargo in Libya, through to rocket attacks on patrol boats off Egypt.

The area is currently a dangerous one for shipping, and as the Suez Canal opens its new expanded channels, more and bigger ships are potentially in the firing line. The risk to trade are perhaps greater than ever.

The expanded canal is an obvious and likely target of terrorists. The Suez Canal extension is a new 72 km-long channel that will enable convoys transiting the canal to navigate in both directions for the first time since the canal was opened 146 years ago.

The project, which involves widening and deepening the waterway will see a drop in transit times from some 18 to 11 hours for most vessels. It will also massively boosting the nation’s finances, increasing Suez Canal revenue from an annual average of $5bn to at least $13bn by 2023.

Estimates have stated that the number of ships sailing through the canal will double, though many outside of Egypt are rather more sceptical. What most experts do agree on is the potential threat posed to the canal by.

The Muslim Brotherhood attempted to bomb shipping in the canal last month. A terrorist cell, which included a Suez Canal Authority employee were accused of planted bombs in areas such as sanitation and electricity facilities.

Terrorists are highly motivated to strike at such an important target as the Suez Canal, and the stakes could not be higher for Egypt. The newly expanded canal will only have a short window of opportunity as the Panama Canal is due to complete its own set of bigger locks by April 2016 to enable it to accommodate larger container ships.

This means that Suez is likely to face more competition for shipping between Asia and the eastern seaboard of the United States – while the attraction is obvious for many to use Suez and ongoing and protracted struggle against terrorism could well see some shipping companies exploring alternative routes.

Zero Deaths Landmark

Last year saw the first time no seafarers died aboard UK flagged vessels over 100GT, the MAIB reported. Before 2014, UK vessels averaged four deaths per year for the past decade, the MAIB said in its annual report released last month.

The overall accident rate for UK merchant vessels in this size category was unchanged from 2013, with 120 casualties recorded. This represents a rate of 88 casualties per 1000 vessels on the UK fleet.

Of these, 41% were service ships such as dredgers, offshore vessels and tugs, followed by passenger ships (29%) and solid cargo vessels (21%). The remaining 9% was made up of liquid cargo and commercial recreational ships.

Meanwhile, 142 injuries to crew were recorded. The majority of these happened on the ship’s deck and involved injuries to upper and lower limbs.

The MAIB’s records go back 50 years – so this is kind of a big deal. In addition, for the fifth consecutive year there were no losses of UK merchant vessels above 100 gt recorded. The last UK flagged merchant vessel lost was recorded in 2009.

That is not to say there haven’t been deaths on UK vessels – sadly, one such ship – which conveniently sneaks in under the 100GT mark, has seen two deaths in a 12 month period.

The UK-flagged workboat “GPS Battler” has seen two fatal accidents, both of which saw alcohol involved. The two fatalities connected with the operation of the workboat occurred in August 13, 2014 and January 6, 2015.

An MAIB report said that the first incident occurred soon after the open tender returning workboat master and mate from the marina in Almeria, Spain to the anchored vessel became overwhelmed in choppy seas, sending both men into the water. The mate was recovered from the water uninjured but the master drowned in the incident.

Less than 5 months later, a mate joining GPS Battler fell into the water from the quayside in Marin, Spain. His body was recovered from the water almost an hour later.

MAIB said that the deceased in the first accident was 25% over the UK’s legal drink and drive limit and the deceased in the second accident was almost four times over the limit.

To lose one seafarer in the water while drunk can be considered unfortunate…to lose two…well…

All the Gear, No Idea

Shipping’s very own moral compass Michael Grey has been looking at how we keep having so many navigational errors when the equipment onboard has never been so sophisticated.

According to Grey, “Navigators who sailed with decent companies under respectable flags, were brought up with the golden rule that “keeping a good look-out” was the absolute priority for the hours they were on the bridge”. Which seems only right and proper…

Keeping a watch is vital now as it ever has been – as the sea and those on it have the unerring capacity to make idiots of us all. Something which was driven home by an Australian Transport Safety Bureau has released its report into the collision between the container ship “Kota Wajar” and a yacht last year. The report stated that that neither vessel was maintaining a proper lookout at the time.

Two wrongs making a right mess…

Overall casualties are on the slide, which is good news. But stubbornly those due to navigational causes remain. Something which is puzzling given the equipment available to the modern watchkeeper. With so much equipment at their disposal, how and why are these accidents still happening?

Grey believes that some of the answer can be found not so much in the bridge equipment, but in the design of the space. Comfortable chairs and all-enclosed bridges, keep the watchkeeper sedentary and removed from the environment. Which cannot be a good thing.

There are also concerns that very role of a bridge watchkeeper in the age of e-Navigation means more answering of alarms and monitoring that the computer is doing the job properly. Without a challenge, without some interaction, without professional pride…what is left? What indeed…

Shaking sends Shivers

For many cruise punters dining at the captain’s table is a glamorous highlight. However, it seems that having donned their dickies and ball gowns, some passengers are having to forego a handshake with the Skipper.

It has emerged that some cruise ships have banned passengers from shaking hands with the captain amid fears over highly contagious stomach viruses being passed on.

On-board outbreaks of norovirus have turned many a cruise into a nightmare for holidaymakers, leaving them suffering chronic vomiting and diarrhoea. So the handshake ban is a sensible bid to prevent it being passed to Captains at dinners, cocktail parties and receptions.

A Crystal Cruises spokesman said: ‘It used to be, back in the day, that the captain would shake everyone’s hand. But because norovirus is spread so easily it’s just standard now that when the captains are greeting lots of people they don’t shake hands”.

Whether or not passengers can shake hands with the captain is down to individual cruise lines, say the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA). A CLIA spokesman insisted norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships are uncommon, affecting ‘just 1 out of every 12,000 cruise passengers’. He said: ‘You are 750 times more likely to get norovirus on land than on a cruise ship.’

When your humble narrator joined his first ship he was instructed not to shake hands with engineers – “because you know exactly where their hand have been”. Interestingly the phrase “Captain’s Handshake” has actually made it into the Urban Dictionary – though decorum dictates that we won’t explain it here – check out http://goo.gl/NEguvc if you must, but it is a little racy.

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The Maritime Security Alliance is a platform of maritime stakeholders aimed to provide ships with non-lethal, non-violent protection against maritime crime. Continuous innovation and creative thinking of its expert team will improve security conditions for seafarers by ensuring effective, legitimate and affordable self-protection measures.

The Maritime Security Alliance offers the service of one single contact for integrated solutions against piracy.



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The Maritime Security Alliance is a platform of maritime stakeholders aimed to provide ships with non-lethal, non-violent protection against maritime crime. Continuous innovation and creative thinking of its expert team will improve security conditions for seafarers by ensuring effective, legitimate and affordable self-protection measures.

The Maritime Security Alliance offers the service of one single contact for integrated solutions against piracy.


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