The focal point of global piracy is shifting to the Gulf of Guinea with a spurt of attacks in West African countries such as Nigeria even as the menace has ebbed in Asia and around the Gulf of Aden, shipping industry executives and insurance brokers said.
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Restrictions on the use of private armed guards on board ships passing through the Gulf of Guinea strategically limits the ability to tackle the menace but new initiatives are being taken which can help turn around the situation, they said.
"Curbing piracy in [the] Gulf of Aden was a success story but the problem is not going away and instead increasing in the Gulf of Guinea due to the severe unrest in Nigeria," Intertanko's regional manager for Asia, Tim Wilkins said at an international shipping seminar in Singapore Friday.
The Gulf of Guinea accounted for seven of the world's 10 kidnapping incidents on sea during the first half of the year while many such assaults go unreported, according to estimates of the International Maritime Bureau, or IMB, a specialized division of the International Chamber of Commerce that fights maritime crimes and malpractices.
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Some of these pirates are more aggressive in the use of firepower, quickly deploying semi-automatic weapons in a well co-ordinated manner, Wilkins said.
International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, or Intertanko is one of the largest groupings in the shipping industry, with 210 full members and 268 associate members, and a registered fleet of over 3,600 tankers of over 312 million dwt.
The spurt in piracy-related incidents in the Gulf of Guinea in turn has pushed up insurance premiums for ships moving in the region.
"Region around Nigeria is a war zone and tankers lifting cargoes or passing from nearby waters have to pay a higher premium," an underwriter for an international maritime insurance company said.
He said there are no specific statistics on the recent increase in insurance premiums for ships passing through the Gulf of Guinea and they vary on a weekly and case-by-case basis depending on the threat perception and its assessment by the underwriters.
According to shipping industry estimates, around 8% of the total economic cost of tackling piracy in the Western Indian Ocean that includes Somalia in 2014, or close to $175 million, was spent on insurance and labor.
A major chunk, or 56%, of the expenditure amounting to $1.2 billion was on industry employed vessel protection measures such as armed guards, security equipment, increasing speed and re-routing of ships.
Despite a code of conduct to tackle piracy in Gulf of Guinea being adopted three years ago in Yaounde, Cameroon, the problem has aggravated.
Also, due to political differences and lack of information sharing among some of the members, the Maritime Trade and Information Sharing Centre, or MTISC was closed down in June this year.
PRIVATE ARMED GUARDS
Some of the brokers and maritime experts said that the threat perception in the region is substantially high due to the political unrest in Nigeria and limitations on the use of such private security companies. Relatively new threat groups have emerged such as Niger Delta Avengers.
Unlike the Gulf of Aden where private armed guards were widely available and worked successfully, the situation is different in the Gulf of Guinea where such personnel can only be hired from the coastal states in the region, said Wilkins.
However, experts point out that such restrictions are there in Southeast Asia as well, which has nevertheless successfully combated piracy in the last one year.
Private armed guards on board ships without consent are prohibited by law in the territorial waters of countries in Southeast Asia, Masafumi Kuroki, executive director of ReCAAP said at the seminar.
This has not come in the way of controlling piracy in Asia.
The number of piracy and armed robbery cases against ships in Asia, including both actual and attempted, are estimated at 47 in seven months through July this year compared with more than a decade high of 203 last year and 187 in 2014, according to ReCAAP data.
The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia, or ReCAAP is an international piracy watchdog.
Arrests of perpetrators of such crimes and better patrolling of the Strait of Malacca by countries such as Indonesia have served as deterrent, said Kuroki.
Lower oil prices in recent years have made siphoning and theft of oil less lucrative for sales in the black market, both Kuroki and Wilkins said.
"In the Gulf of Guinea, rather than oil tankers being hijacked for their cargo, there is an increasing number of incidents of crew being kidnapped for ransom," IMB's director Pottengal Mukundan, said in a statement last month.
Between March and July this year, there have been six incidents related to abduction of crew across eastern Sabah, according to ReCAAP data. Of a total of 33 crew members abducted, 15 are still being held hostage.
Of the 44 crew captured for ransom in the first half of 2016, 24 of them were in Nigeria, according to IMB.
Sources tracking the developments said negotiations are being held between the shipowning companies and abductors to resolve the issue. Kuroki declined to comment.
"Countries do not have legislation on paying ransom. Hostage issue is humanitarian but payment of ransom can also encourage perpetrators to indulge in more such acts," Kuroki said.
CONTROL POVERTY TO STEM PIRACY
"Socio-economic development of the region around Gulf of Aden has been an important factor in successfully tackling piracy," said Simon Stonehouse, head for marine at Asia Capital Reinsurance Group said.
Poverty-alleviation and employment generation can be long-term solutions to tackle sea-robbery and piracy while in the short term low and order has to be managed with littoral countries co-operating among themselves to bring criminals to justice, Kuroki said.
"Reporting piracy incidents is a key to successfully tackling them because it triggers enforcement operations and alerts fellow seafarers but some companies fear that their reputation be destroyed and customers will lose confidence in them," he said.
Wilkins said the new initiative in the Gulf of Guinea started by the UK and French navies in June this year, Maritime Domain Awareness for Trade, or MDAT is aimed at coherent and quicker flow of information among all participants to tackle piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. This replaces the now-defunct MTISC.
A protected anchorage running up to 250 miles offshore in the Gulf of Guinea, roping in security guards from coastal states is working towards enhancing security in the region, he said.
However, shipping companies privately express concern that some of the private security personnel employed from the coastal states may leak information to criminal elements and there should be more independence in drawing in such guards from outside the region.
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