The Changing Face of Piracy

MariTrace analyses how the nature of the threat to shipping has changed in recent times.

Much has been made in the media over the last few years of the downwards trend in piracy.  Costs to mitigate against the threat have reduced along with the number of companies available to provide the services required.

It is hard to argue with the facts.  Since its peak in 2010 and 2011, the number of recorded incidents has certainly been on the decline, with figures this year looking to finish nearly 40% down on 2011.  Other than a ‘blip’ in 2015, where the count of incidents was down only about 8% on 2011, this is a steadily growing downwards trend (figure 1, below).

Figure 1: All incidents recorded since Jan 2010.  (Source: MariTrace)

All that said, does this really mean that the threat is decreasing?  A recorded piracy incident is quite vague in its definition.  A sighting of a suspicious vessel is counted in that number, alongside the hijacking of a tanker.

If we look at only incidents where a vessel was approached (or worse), the trend remains quite similar (figure 2).  2011 still has the highest number of incidents, and this year still sits around 40% down on that figure.  A quick glance at the graphs and you might think nothing has changed – in fact not much really has.  The peaks and troughs of the graphs are very similar so this still suggests that the overall threat to world shipping is lower now than it was in 2011.

Figure 2: All incidents except suspicious sightings recorded since Jan 2010.  (Source:  MariTrace)

So where does this leave us?  Well, the graph below (figure 3) shows how kidnapping had changed since 2011 and this starts to paint an interesting picture.

Figure 3:  All kidnappings recorded since Jan 2011 (excludes hijackings where the entire vessel was taken with the crew).  (Source:  MariTrace)

Figure 3 is interesting because it is the only graph which shows an upwards trend since 2011.  In fact, some months in 2015 and 2016 had more kidnappings than recorded in total in 2010 and 2011 combined.  It is worth noting, though, that if you include hijackings then the figure for this year is similar to those of 2010 and 2011.  This seems to show a change in tactics, perhaps.

To have a fuller picture of this, it can be useful to know where these incidents (hijackings and kidnappings) are occurring geographically (figures 4 and 5).

Figure 4: Kidnappings and hijackings from Jan 2010 to Dec 2011.  (Source:  MariTrace)
Figure 5: Kidnappings and hijackings from Jan 2015 to Dec 2016.  (Note: further incidents are noted in the Caribbean Sea, but are excluded in this figure for brevity.)  (Source: MariTrace)

This shows a very interesting geographical change.  The coast of Somalia, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and the western Indian Ocean were extremely active areas in 2010/11, whereas there have now been only three incidents in the last two years.  Does that mean that the areas are safe and mitigations are no longer required, or does it simply mean that the safety processes in place are working?  The answer to this may become clearer as vessel operators start taking the risk of hiring cheaper and less well trained crews and holding off from properly hardening their vessels as they transit these ‘traditionally’ dangerous waters.

In the meantime, the Bay of Bengal around Bangladesh is now dotted with hijackings and kidnappings.  These individual incidents are mostly against fishing vessels with lower ransom demands than when tankers and cargo vessels were being attacked in 2010-2011 but in some ways, this makes them more of a problem as they are unlikely to gain the same worldwide press coverage but they still have the same impact on the persons being kidnapped and their families.

So, what does all this mean?  Is the threat of piracy going away?  Probably not.  But it is certainly changing.  As has been the case for centuries, piracy will always exist while there are social and economic problems in existence which make it a viable way for a person to survive.  Piracy can be mitigated against, showing figures of incidents reducing because pirates are dissuaded from attacking, but this is surely a case of treating the symptom rather than the cause, and once you remove the sticking plaster it is a matter of time before the problems return.

To perform your own analysis of our database of over 6,500 piracy incidents, or perform a risk assessment of your passage – please visit us at and request a free trial of our system.

Piracy and Autonomous Ships

If a vessel has no crew, what next for the pirates?

More than 340 piracy incidents have been recorded by MariTrace so far in 2016, with 55 (16%) involving the kidnapping of one or more personnel from the vessel.  In the four years leading up to this, the percentage of incidents involving kidnapping had hovered at 4-5% following a steady decrease from its peak of 14% back in 2008.

So why is this number increasing?  One suggestion is that the ratio of financial return to effort is far greater for taking crew members hostage and demanding a ransom than it is for stealing the crew’s belongings or cargo, or even taking the vessel to ransom back to the owner.

The ransoms demanded for kidnapped crew varies greatly depending on the geographical area.  The Bay of Bengal, specifically the waters around Calcutta, have had many incidents where local fishing vessels have been attacked and the workers taken hostage with ransoms being demanded of hundreds or thousands of dollars.  Compare this to the Gulf of Guinea where the usual victims are tankers and large cargo vessels and you start seeing ransoms demanded reaching into tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Autonomous vessels will help relieve this issue on larger commercial vessels, but of course the main concentration is likely to be on finances rather than security (these can often be the same thing).  Sailors cost money and take up large amounts of space on the vessel for eating, sleeping and other activities.  Supplies need to be stored to provision for them, and their ‘output’ needs to be stored until there is an appropriate place to remove them from the vessel safely, cleanly, and legally.  All this space and effort could be far more profitable if spent on further paying cargo.

All that said, in a token nod towards security, it could be argued that removing crew from a vessel may help to relieve problems caused by human error and fatigue.  You could also, rather cynically, consider that the potential for kidnapping is not just a security consideration but also a financial one, as the vessel operator should no longer be required to maintain a K&R insurance policy.

Having established that pirates will no longer be able to kidnap crew if there are no crew on board to be kidnapped, this does open several new security holes.  For example, measures would have to be taken to ensure the operator is made known of anybody boarding the vessel.  With no crew, pirates would meet no resistance on the vessel and would be free to steal at their leisure, though the design of future vessels with no crewing requirements may also introduce the ability to further secure cargo against such things.

A more likely threat would be cyber piracy.  If a vessel has no crew, then there must be a communications channel open to allow the operator to control everything on board the vessel remotely.  If the vessel can be accessed by an authorised operator, then malicious hackers will almost certainly find a way to gain control.  This could be used to aid pirates who have physically boarded the vessel, or to remotely take control and divert the vessel.

This could open a whole new type of piracy, where the vessel itself is taken hostage by pirates without ever having to physically approach it.  A vessel could be effectively held hostage, cargo and all, until a ransom is paid and control given back to the rightful operator.

All this is, of course, very much a problem for the future, as the process of designing, approving and building, not just the vessel itself, but the various infrastructures that would need to be in place is likely to be many years in the making.  Assuming this happens, the effect it will eventually have on piracy will certainly be dramatic, but piracy has evolved a lot over the last few centuries and there is no reason to think that it will not continue to do so.

MariTrace has a host of piracy intelligence.  Click here for more information on MariTrace, or click here for a map of the latest incidents.