Despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, piracy is still a significant issue that not only affects the shipping industry but also has repercussions on global geopolitical issues.

“In 2020, we saw a year-on-year increase in global incidents, with the Gulf of Guinea giving a continuous cause for concern,” commented ICS chair Esben Poulson. “Incidents in this region alone account for more than 90% of maritime kidnappings worldwide.”

In the “Maritime Security and Piracy” webinar, shipping experts and stakeholders discussed the impact of piracy, the repercussions of geopolitical tensions on it and what can be done to mitigate it.

Here are some takeaways from the forum.


Geopolitical tensions can have a direct and indirect effect on shipping

Risk Intelligence CEO Hans Tino Hansen explained that piracy is not the only factor that can have an impact on shipping. Geopolitical tensions in every corner of the world can similarly impact the industry.

In the Black Sea, for example, Russia has put restrictions on government ships that enter the Sea of Azov, whilst creating military exercise areas south of Crimea, which also has an impact on commercial shipping. “This of course has to do with the conflict in Ukraine and is also a measure to keep away US and NATO vessels from the northern part of the Black Sea,” he said.

The latent conflicts, however, should be considered a direct threat to shipping resulting in collateral damage in the event of incidents.

In other areas, such as Libya, threats could result from the political climate of infighting and sanctions that have been imposed. “There have been few very direct threat to ships calling in Libyan ports but [disruption] has been more collateral damage,” Hansen said.

Direct threats still occur in renowned hotspots such as West Africa, where the conflict in Yemen has impacted ships carrying the flag of those involved, such as the UAE or Saudi Arabia.

Hansen added that there are types of electronic threats that are not meant for civilian shipping but can cause harm. “More security [issues] are the indirect threats from electronic warfare operations by various navies and states, where you lose navigation systems and communications systems.”

This, explained Hansen, happens in the eastern Mediterranean and Asia, specifically in the South China Sea and Gulf of Taiwan.


Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is a regional issue and should be dealt with as such

In the last few years, the Gulf of Guinea has become synonymous with piracy. According to data from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) in the first quarter of 2020 out of 47 piracy attacks that took place, 21 happened in the Gulf.

According to IMB director Michael Howlett, the area poses “a significant threat to the safety and security of innocent seafarers.”

In the last two years, the IMB has noticed an increasing trend of crew kidnappings at an increasing distance from the land, which affected all sectors of shipping.

“What we’re seeing since the middle of 2019 is a new modus operandi, and this could be because the area is becoming more commercialised and the risk/reward ratio has turned piracy into a lucrative business model,” he continued.

Given the high level of piracy and the fact that pirates move between different jurisdictions, a coordinated approach is what is needed. “There needs to be a little more in terms of coordination, reporting and response,” he added. “Ultimately piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is a regional issue that requires a regional solution. The region should therefore be encouraged to take greater ownership of the crime, particularly as it affects innocent seafarers and regional trade.”


Piracy in the Gulf of Mexico is different from other hotspots

Previously overlooked, piracy in the Gulf of Mexico has increased in the last few years. According to US Coast Guard Commander Ellen Motoi, in 2020 alone there were four attacks in ten days.

“I think it was very eye-opening because more visibility needs to happen in the Gulf of Mexico,” she explained.

While the reasons may be tied to geopolitics and instability much like in other areas, what differentiates the Gulf of Mexico from other hotspots is the type of pirate events.

“The typical pirate event in this area mostly involves smaller vessels, going at high speed usually armed,” she said. “The difference between events in this area versus Africa is that the intent is more focused towards robbery, millions of dollars are stolen – including sophisticated gear navigation systems and even fuel.”

The increase, explained Motoi, is also due to the higher volume of traffic, especially because of oil drills, and the fact that pirates take advantage of the lack of law enforcement.

Motoi said piracy in the Gulf of Mexico is becoming a priority for the US because it’s increasingly getting closer to its national waters.

“Our biggest role in this topic is staying connected with our international and domestic partners, and the industry,” she said. “We need to stay plugged in because maritime security is one of our primary missions.


Covid-19 has exacerbated piracy and maritime security concerns

While it’s true that geopolitical events affect piracy hotspots, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have exacerbated the situation. According to Julian Clark, global senior partner at global firm Ince, the lack of crew changes and the deteriorating conditions of seafarers’ mental health can play a part in the increase of maritime insecurity and piracy.

“We see that disturbing rise in relation to mental health issues facing crews and that I fear will give rise to potential serious maritime incidents and increased exposure to piracy incidents,” he commented. “A crew that is suffering from extreme fatigues is far less able to deal with the kinds of security measures that we have.”