Thanks in part to pop culture touchstones like Treasure Island and Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, we tend to view pirates as a suave, fun-loving bunch that, despite their general lawlessness, is basically harmless at its core. But plundering on the high seas isn’t fiction and it didn’t end in the era of Sir Francis Drake.
As The Economist put it in 1999, this pop cultural take on oceanic outlaws “infuriates the world’s shipowners. For them, and the crews who man their ships, piracy remains a serious, and bloody, business.” This remains as true today as it was then.
A new report issued last week by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reminds us that maritime outlaws still prowl our oceans and pose a great danger to all who cross their paths. And as the report shows, there is good news and bad news.
The good news: cases of sea piracy worldwide have declined to 138 during the first half of this year, compared with 177 cases in the same period last year. Further, cases of hijackings have also dropped on year, with only seven incidents occurring during the first six months this year compared with 20 in the first half of 2012. The number of hostages taken during the same period has also dropped on year, from 334 to 127.
The bad news: the waters surrounding large swathes of Africa – particularly Somali pirates in East Africa’s Gulf of Aden – and the seafaring nations of Southeast Asia are rife with piracy. In particular, Southeast Asian waters see more pirate attacks than anywhere else on the planet. This year, some 57 incidents had taken place in the region as of June.
Ships of marauding thieves apparently favor Indonesian waters, where some 48 attacks occurred in the first six months of 2013. Of these, 43 involved pirates boarding vessels and assaulting the crew. Other attacks were recorded in the Singapore Straits, in Malaysian waters, in the Straits of Malacca and in the Philippines. The South China Sea, which has its own history of piracy, has so far come through without incident this year.
Pirates have favored Southeast Asian waters for centuries, picking off traders who sailed through the Straits of Malacca to and from India and China. Estimates suggest that around one-third of the world’s trade still moves through this waterway, so it is no surprise that piracy continues to thrive there.
In fact, the problem has grown in recent decades. As noted by The Economist 14 years ago, global piracy doubled during the 1990s, to 200 attacks per year as of 1999, with the bulk taking place in Asia. In 1999, almost three-fourths of global piracy took place in Asia. Indonesia was host to the largest number of attacks then as well. In 2004, the global total number of incidents spiked to 329, of which attacks in Indonesian waters accounted for 93.
When assessing these numbers, it is important to distinguish between degrees of piracy. On the lighter end of the spectrum are the sea-faring hooligans who conduct sloppy attacks on heavily trafficked coastal waters. These hoods favor the kinds of lanes where thousands of ships cruise – and drop anchor – between Indonesia and Malaysia, or in the South China Sea. These pirates usually attack as thieves in the night while ships are anchored and most crew members asleep.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is the more sophisticated and more troubling brand of piracy perpetrated by large-scale, well-coordinated global crime organizations. In these kinds of attacks, cargo worth millions of dollars is routinely stolen, as in the case of the Petro Ranger, an oil tanker that was robbed of $3 million worth of fuel en route from Singapore to Vietnam.
Cases of piracy on this scale are actually on decline in Asia, even as nations like Indonesia continue to struggle with the problem. Africa stands in contrast, but thanks to the involvement of international naval forces, things could slowly be starting to calm down there too.
While official response may be helping, there is still little that the men on the ships can do in the event of an attack. In fact, crew members are expressly trained to simply meet pirates’ demands without a fight. Many captains forbid their crew from keeping weapons on board, as they have found that the pirates usually have them outgunned.
“If we arm our crews with light machine guns, they can probably buy heavy machine guns,” Arthur Bowring, managing director of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, told The New York Times. “And if we buy light rocket launchers, they can buy heavy ones.”