Tens of thousands of merchant ships travel yearly in the Gulf of Aden off the Somali coast to gain access to the Suez Canal and because the boats are typically unarmed and can command high ransoms, they've become targets for pirate attacks.
When the ships are laden, the deck is only a few metres above the water line making it easy for pirates to climb aboard, says John Burnett, who worked on merchant ships and wrote Dangerous Waters about maritime piracy.
Somalia's weak transitional government is unable to govern its maritime waters. The country's poor economy and lack of oversight have created an environment ripe for pirates.
Ship owners and the international community are struggling to protect the ships and their crews. Besides increasing the vigilance of crew members and outfitting the decks with halogen lights and high pressure water hoses to deter pirates, there are two high tech - and costly - options to repel pirates.
Long range acoustic devices, or LRADs, emit sound waves loud enough to cause pain and permanent damage that could be directed towards the pirates. The device, which costs between 30,000 – 50,000 dollars, was employed by the Seabourn Spirit to fight off pirates that attacked the luxury yacht on November 5, 2005.
Ships carrying non-flammable materials can be surrounded by a non-lethal 9,000-volt electric device to deter pirates from climbing over the rails.
The most controversial anti-piracy method is to arm the ships, either through outfitting the crew with weapons or hiring security contractors. Some have suggested that crews are not qualified to carry guns and that having weapons aboard could simply put them in more danger.
Security companies may be ill-equipped to deal with pirates; when a Liberian ship was attacked recently, three British security contractors reportedly jumped overboard. Others see the guards as dangerous. Maritime policy analyst Mark Valencia says he opposes “armed guards and armed resistance for commercial vessels because of the dangers to ship and crew involved”.
The EU hopes that providing ships to patrol the waters and escort merchant ships will reduce pirate attacks. On 10 November it approved 12-month operation “Atalanta” which will assist in the protection of vessels carrying aid from the World Food Programme and of “vulnerable vessels cruising off the Somali coast, and the deterrence, prevention and repression of acts of piracy and armed robbery off the Somali coast.” The operation is expected to begin in early December.
Indeed, the escorts – provided currently by the Netherlands and NATO though other countries have assisted in the past - have deterred pirates from attacking the WFP ships. “Since NATO has been been helping us out, not a single ship has been hijacked” said Greg Barrow, the global media coordinator at WFP.
Many countries have sent ships to patrol the waters. Russian, Indian and British frigates have recently defended ships under pirate attack and Denmark and the US also have provided assistance in the gulf.
Burnett is sceptical that ocean patrols will solve the problem. “Additional military might curb piracy, but it won't stop it,” he says. “The area is 1.2 million square miles. The pirates will avoid them and attack ships that are outside the areas.”
Aerial support has been used to improve information and security in the Gulf of Aden. The method helped to decrease pirate attacks in the Straits of Malacca three years ago in an operation called “Eye in the Sky.” Spanish military aircraft launched a patrol operation that is planned to continue through the end of December.
The most effective long-term plan may be to address the root of the problem, that is to stabilize Somalia and help establish an effective government. “Ultimately the decisive battle against maritime piracy is to be won on land, not at sea. Intervention at sea is still defensive and reactive, and we may not always get to the perpetrators in time,” wrote piracy scholar Graham Gerard Ong-Webb. “We must attack pirates at source. That is, we must identify their bases of operations and dismantle them.”
Though security forces in the Gulf of Aden are being augmented, several shipping companies have considered changing their routes to avoid the dangerous area. Instead they will go around the southern tip of Africa, increasing the time and cost of delivering goods.
Maritime piracy has ramifications not only for the crews held at ransom but for the economies that rely on the timely delivery of goods via merchant ships. “This isn't an African problem” says Burnett. “This is the interruption of the global supply chain. This is our problem.”