While the U.S. Navy and the public were reveling in this month’s dramatic rescue of the crew and captain of the container ship Maersk Alabama, world shipping lines were moving in a far different direction.
Shocked at the escalating attacks in the Indian Ocean that have put container ships, bulk carriers, their crews and cargo in the sights of pirates operating out of lawless regions of East Africa, shipowners are shifting operations and taking a new look at strategies from avoidance to arms to cope with the threat.
Cargo ships moving through the Gulf of Aden already are organized into “group transits” to pass through pirate-infested waters.
But with the new wave of attacks on container ships and tankers in open waters farther from the coast, international maritime groups are meeting to coordinate a response, and individual carriers say privately they are looking at the legal and practical steps they can take.
“We’re at the point,” said the chief of security at an Asian shipping line, speaking on condition of anonymity, “where we’re forced as a result of this (Maersk Alabama) incident to look at things that we’ve been legitimately ignoring, for the moment assuming that we didn’t have a problem with piracy to any great degree.”
But the carriers say they now face a very pressing problem, and for shippers that means a concern once seemingly limited to a particular trade lane has grown into a pressing issue affecting security, costs and the maritime world’s attention across global supply chains.
The high-profile assault on the Maersk Alabama early this month focused the world on the piracy, but new reports suggest the failed hijacking attempt as well as others against vessels in recent weeks are part of a disturbing new scale of piracy in the lawless waters off Somalia.
The International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau said last week that attacks by pirates worldwide nearly doubled in the first quarter, from 53 incidents in the first three months of 2008 to 102 this year. The IMB said Somali pirates accounted for 61 of the incidents this year against six in the same timeframe last year.
On average, the IMB said, one in eight vessels attacked was successfully hijacked in the most recent quarter.
The attack on the Maersk Alabama also raised the specter that pirates could target U.S.-flag ships that haul food aid in the region. The attack on the Maersk Alabama was the first on a ship flying the U.S. flag and manned by a U.S. crew. A few days later, pirates tried but failed to seize another U.S. cargo ship, the Liberty Sun, which was carrying food aid.
The Maersk Alabama is owned by Maersk Line Ltd., based in Norfolk, a U.S.-owned company qualified to operate U.S.-flag ships and receive operating subsidies under the Maritime Security Program.
Though not sailing under an MSP contract at the time it was attacked, the Maersk Alabama was carrying U.S. food and other relief aid to Mombasa, Kenya, from Djibouti.
The U.N. World Food Program warned that continued attacks by Somali pirates could result in the starvation of millions in Africa. It said that in 2008 some 200 ships delivered 500,000 metric tons of food aid to Mombasa. According to the U.S. Maritime Administration, U.S.-flag vessels carried the lion’s share of the aid cargoes.
U.S.-flag carriers, operating under cargo preference provisions that give them an edge in bidding for U.S. food aid shipping contracts in the region, are scheduled to meet with the U.S. government on April 28 to share their concerns about continuing to operate in the waters off Somalia, according to Joe Cox, president of the Chamber of Shipping of America, which represents 32 U.S. companies that operate ships under the U.S. or foreign flags.
When these same companies met with government officials last September to raise the same concerns, they were told the area was too big to patrol. “They said we weren’t taking care of ourselves. They were telling us, ‘You’ve got to protect yourselves,’ ” Cox said.
Eight months later, carriers are rethinking the idea they can buy off Somali pirates with ransom money. Government officials are recognizing it’s not just the carriers’ problem. “We’ve both come a long way into the middle ground where we both recognize we have a responsibility,” Cox said.
Global container carriers also are considering a meeting in coming weeks under the auspices of the World Shipping Council, according to Chris Koch, president and CEO of the Washington-based trade group, whose members operate 90 percent of the global container fleet’s vessel capacity.
The meeting would discuss defensive measures carriers could take individually and collectively to ward off piracy in the 2.5 million-square-mile area of the Indian Ocean where Somali pirate attacks occurred in recent years — an area far too vast for the combined allied navies to effectively patrol against attacks.
While most major shipping lines have taken some precautions against the increased piracy — the crew of the Maersk Alabama had been trained to take certain actions, if attacked, and did so — some carriers are now exploring stronger defenses.
That could include hiring security guards, but carriers have not decided whether to arm them. The private security guards would board ships during passage through the waters in the Indian Ocean within several hundred miles off the coast of Somalia. Pirates escalated operations there after patrols by allied navies reduced the number of attacks in the Gulf of Aden.
Shipping lines have not armed the vessel crews against pirates for several reasons: Crews are not trained in the use of weapons, which could put them more in harm’s way; the law of the states that provide flags of convenience to many ships generally do not allow ship crews to carry arms; and the crews of some ships whose owners have not paid them might be tempted to use arms against their officers.
Insurance underwriters that provide hull and cargo coverage and private security companies are telling ship lines not to arm their vessel crews.
That leaves most of the coordinated response so far to the protection of some two dozen military vessels — operating under U.S., European Union and NATO commands — that have entered the waters to respond to the threats.
The combined allied navies in the Gulf of Aden are coordinating their response to pirates, said Paul J. Pluta, a retired U.S. Coast Guard rear admiral who was responsible for safety and security at the Coast Guard.
The group transits, as Pluta calls them, are like convoys but are not escorted by naval ships, which remain “out of sight” over the horizon but still “handy” enough to reach the groups when the pirates hail them.
The naval forces coordinate their responses through MARLO Bahrain, the Maritime Liaison Office maintained by the U.S. Navy and the U.K. Maritime Transportation Office, and the Maritime Security Center Horn of Africa.
“Through the coordination of those three knotholes, all the maritime forces can position themselves and establish group transits so they can be better protected and distribute those limited assets to protect them,” Pluta said. “They say they can respond in 30 minutes.”
Slower and faster vessels are grouped separately in these group transits. “But even with group transits, the pirates are smart enough to target the weakest link, those vessels with the lowest freeboards and speeds,” Pluta said. “Among those, there might be some who feel their relative risk is low, so they may not be paying attention, and these guys sneak up on them and get aboard, and then it’s game over, because nobody wants to risk harming the crew.”
Several international shipping organizations, including BIMCO, the International Chamber of Shipping and the International Maritime Organization, have adopted a set of best practices for a master and crew when they are going through the transit zone, while they are being attacked and after they have been boarded.
“The idea is that you can harden your target,” Pluta said. “They can take evasive maneuvers; they can spray water over the side to keep themselves out of trouble so they won’t be dependent on some navy ship that may not reach them in time.”
Many of the major liner companies already have instituted an array of defensive measures. Those include training in evasive maneuvering, keeping fire hoses on deck that are charged with water when steaming through danger zones, maintaining heightened vigilance and more extensive testing of engines that may have to run at top speed to escape an attack.
APL, for example, stays in regular communication with naval and maritime officials regarding the security of shipping lanes.
“All its vessels have security plans and follow prescribed shipping lanes,” APL spokesman Michael Zampa said. “Our crews are trained in security measures and keep an eagle eye out for approaching vessels at all times.”
All the project cargo and heavy-lift vessels operated by Hamburg-based Rickmers-Linie adhere to the company’s Safety Management System, which follows the industry’s best practices.
“These include instructions and loss prevention guidance for all vessels that are transiting the Gulf of Aden and sailing in the vicinity of the Somalia coast,” Rickmers spokeswoman Andrea Zigahn said. “During the transit, they follow special processes such as ‘group transit operations’ or ‘operational reports’ according to U.K. Maritime Trade Operations,” she said.
But outside of the patrolled transit zone in the Gulf of Aden, ships are on their own.
Pluta said the best way for the allied forces to protect this zone would be by deploying regular air patrols that could be mounted from Djibouti, Mombasa, or from the U.S. base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Such patrols don’t exist yet.
One shipping line has obtained quotes from private security agencies that can provide heightened security in the dangerous passages. A security executive for the line, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the carrier has contemplated using armed guards on its ships and is examining the laws of various states under whose flags its ships are registered.
If those laws prohibit armed guards from boarding its ships, he said the guards could come aboard without arms and then use armaments that would be kept under lock and key on the ships.
“It gets back to how much investment there is. I think we all agree fundamentally that continuing to pay ransoms is probably enticing these people to continue this activity,” he said.
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