How Piracy Has Changed

For as long as explorers and merchants have gone to sea, pirates have threatened. Documents from Ancient Greece report piracy as early as the 4th Century BC when shipments of grain and olive oil were targeted by maritime thieves. Ever since, piracy, which likely has its roots in even earlier seafaring civilizations, has impacted the trade of nearly every ocean-going nation on Earth. But while piracy has been a constant threat throughout maritime history, the face of piracy has also been constantly changing. Over time, pirates have been variously motivated by religion, politics, power, and greed.

Today, however, pirates can be loosely defined in three groups: the mafia, the kidnappers, and the thieves. Mafia pirates in Asia and West Africa hijack huge oil tankers, offload the crude oil for sale on the black market, and then release ship and crew unharmed. Somalian kidnappers violently take crews and ships hostage, then demand ransoms for their release. Maritime thieves throughout the world quickly board vessels, mug the crew, and collect whatever valuables they can before making quick getaways.

Piracy Attacks Over Time

Choose Year: 1996

Forms of Pirate attacks

Why There? The Three Primary Conditions Necessary for Piracy to Flourish

  1. Favourable maritime geography
    1. Bottlenecks of slow moving ships in high traffic areas where pirates can blend in easily
    2. Island chains or jagged coastlines where pirates can surprise boats from behind landmasses
  2. Favourable political climate
  3. Sanctuaries ashore

Suspected Pirate ‘mother ship’

What Are The Economic Impacts?

Since the global economic boom of the 1990s, during which the Chinese economy grew nearly 5 times, global maritime trade has been booming.

Today, as maritime trade grew by a further 3.8% in 2013 to reach a new historic peak and the ongoing proliferation of container vessels continues to reduce shipping costs, more than 90% of world trade is carried by sea.

So as globalization pushes maritime trade to historic new heights, the ocean fills each year with more and more ships carrying an ever greater wealth of goods and resources. That means more targets for pirates. It also means more slow-moving traffic in geographic choke points like the Strait of Malacca and the Gulf of Aden, providing more opportunities for attacks.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that this recent boom in maritime trade has corresponded with a boom in global piracy which first appeared in the mid-1990’s.

Seaborne Commerce ($ trillions)
Attacks over time

The Human Cost of West African
Piracy in 2013

  • 1,871 seafarers attacked
  • 1,209 seafarers on ships boarded by pirates
  • 73 kidnapped
  • Average length of hostage detainment: 22 days

The Human Cost of Somali
Piracy in 2013

  • 486 seafarers attacked at gunpoint
  • 60 seafarers taken hostage
  • Average duration of hostage detainment: 1016 days
  • 117 total hostages released in 2013

Pirate ship being boarded by military personnel

Installing razor wire and fencing

Military ‘search and seizure’ team

Water cannons used to flood approaching pirate vessel

Military forces approaching suspected pirate skiff

The Price of Protection

Despite the high value of stolen goods and huge ransoms, the true cost of piracy for shippers ultimately amounts to the price of protection.

Since early 2000, the cost of kidnapping & ransom insurance policies spiked tenfold for trips through the Gulf of Aden, rising to about $30,000 for a trip past the Somalia coast.

Meanwhile, insurance premiums for vessels venturing through the Gulf of Aden increased from about .05% the value of their cargo to 0.175% of the value of their cargo in a single month of 2008, when Somali piracy hit a record high. Unfortunately, however, as a document released by the African Development Bank (AFDB) grimly states, “the additional costs due to piracy are passed on to consumers as shipping companies recoup most of their losses through their protection and indemnity clauses.”

Yet the pricey insurance is still cheaper than rerouting around the Cape of Good Hope as a recent report by an intelligence branch of the US Army points out, “A Norwegian company that recently stopped sending its fleet of 100 vessels through the Gulf of Aden reported that doing so is costing the company $30,000 each day.”

This is because diverting a single oil tanker from Saudi Arabia around the Cape of Good Hope to the United States adds:

  • 2,700 shipping miles
  • $3.5 million more in annual fuel costs
  • Reduces its number of annual transits from 6 to 5

Even the simple act of speeding up costs shippers money. To save fuel, cargo ships often travel at about 14 mph, which is actually slower than most 19th-century sailboats. But because pirates today prefer their targets "low and slow," many captains speed through danger zones as a precautionary measure, one that is encouraged by the International Maritime Organization, because no ship has ever been boarded by pirates while pushing 21 mph. But the safety of speed comes at a high cost. Cruising at 20 mph in a supertanker, as compared to the typical 15 mph, adds an extra $88,000 in fuel expense per ship per day.

So even in Somalia where, after several years of serious violence, piracy has now been almost completely eliminated, the total cost of piracy in 2013 was estimated at $3.2 billion. Even though the total cost of ransoms and stolen goods approached zero.

Similarly, the total cost of West African piracy in 2013 was an estimated $565-681 million.

Total cost of West African piracy in 2013
  • Military Operations: $348-370 million
  • Security Equipment & Guards: $150-225 million
  • Piracy Insurance: $40 million
  • Counter Piracy Organizations: $6.6 million

Military vessel approaching pirate ‘mother ship’

Piracy and Oil

Oil is a crucial element in the landscape of modern piracy, and the threat pirates pose to oil shipments today has caused greater alarm and international outcry than any other aspect of these attacks. After the hijacking of several massive oil tankers in recent years (sometimes for ransom, sometimes to siphon off the precious liquid cargo), nations around the world have bolstered naval patrols in piracy hotspots. Because more than 10% of all seaborne oil must pass through the Gulf of Aden, the international community responded swiftly and severely when Somalia piracy spiked in 2008-2009.

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea alone endangers 40% of Europe’s oil imports, nearly 30% of US petroleum imports, most of Nigeria’s crude oil exports, and almost all of Angola’s crude oil exports.

Between 2006-2008, piracy caused Nigerian oil production to fall 20% and the Nigerian economy to lose $202 million in oil exports. In 2011, it is estimated that West African countries lost $1 billion in oil profits due to piracy.

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has become so serious, in fact, that Benin, which relies on its port for nearly 40% of its annual income, recently asked the UN for help policing its troubled waters. As a recent article in The Guardian reported, after being labelled a high-risk country by London insurers, Benin suffered a 70% drop in its maritime trade, thereby losing an estimated $81 million in customs revenue.

Military searching suspected pirate vessel

Piracy and Fishing

Piracy also breeds hunger through the havoc it wreaks on local fishing communities. In 2009 alone, three tuna vessels were attacked near Somalia, one ship was ransomed for over $1 million, and piracy in the Gulf of Aden cost the Seychelles an estimated 4% of its GDP, largely through damage done to its fisheries. As a result, fishermen in the region began avoiding some of the richest fishing grounds in the Indian Ocean, and dwindling catches caused serious economic woes in the Seychelles & Mauritius—the former of which has tourist and fishing industries that account for 65% of the national GDP. Meanwhile, nearby Nigeria stands to lose up to US$600 million in exports because of the toll piracy is taking on its fisheries.

As a microcosm of what is happening to Nigeria’s fisheries, The Economist recently ran a piece discussing the fate of ORC Fishing & Food Processing, which is amongst the largest companies in the nation’s once-thriving fishing industry. In 2013, there were 20 pirate attacks on ORC’s fleet, involving two employee deaths. So the fleet’s fishing grounds have been reduced to a fraction of their former range, and fishermen work in constant fear of attacks. Since 2004, ORC’s shrimp hauls plummeted 50% and fish hauls dropped 66%.

Electric fencing to prevent pirates boarding

Case Study – Nigeria

  • 2/3rd of Nigeria’s waters unsafe for fishing
  • Number of fishing trawlers – 250 to 122 (down 50%)
  • Shipping companies registered – 30 to 5 (down 83%)

Case Study – Seychelles

  • Fishing hauls – down 25% since 2008
  • Fish prices – up 70-80% since 2007


Since 2006, exports of fish products by piracy-hit countries in the Indian Ocean have fallen 23.8%.

Cargo ship mid-transit

Suspected pirate vessel about to be boarded

What the Experts Are Saying

Peter Cook, CEO of SAMI
(Security Association for the Maritime Industry)

“Whilst there is some impact because of the sheer volume of trade, the impact is barely perceived at a national level. But for some small businesses around Europe there have been some significant losses.”

Company Spokesman - Maersk Group

“Piracy is not a problem the shipping industry can solve on its own; it must be solved by the international community and the authorities. Maersk has great sympathy for the argument that this problem also requires land-based solutions and welcome initiatives in this regard. We are contributing to and supporting these measures ashore through the UN. Until these changes are successful, Maersk is acting in an appropriate and responsible way to protect its seafarers.”

What Can We Do About It?

The widespread vulnerability of modern ships is one of the primary reasons piracy has flourished in recent years. Automation and cost-cutting policies left most vessels travelling the seas with tiny crews and virtually no security. So in recent decades, piracy has been easy. Very few vessels put up fight when confronted by pirates. Today, however, that is changing. The spike in maritime crime has caused most vessels moving through piracy hotspots today to follow the so-called Best Management Practices issued by the International Maritime Organization to help ships avoid and defend against attack—and these guidelines work: ships following BMP are 4x less likely to become victims of piracy.

Best Management Practices (BMP)

  • Register: Reporting ship movement in danger zones allows international counter-piracy organizations to provide better support
  • Report Daily: Daily check-ins help alert navies faster when ships are attacked
  • Go Fast: “No pirates have ever boarded a ship pushing 18 knots, or nearly 21 miles per hour.”
  • Increase Vigilance: Using security cameras, radar, lookouts, etc.
  • Reduce Vulnerability: Make ship harder to board using razor wire, for example
  • Avoid Boarding: Increase speed and manoeuvre vessel if pirates are spotted
  • Don’t Be Controlled: Lock personnel in a secure “citadel” to prevent kidnapping or boat hijacking

Piracy in the Gulf of Aden was defeated through four prominent efforts. First, and perhaps most importantly, regular international counter-piracy naval patrols were established in the Gulf of Aden & Indian Ocean. Next, the majority of ships passing through the region were successfully petitioned to implement BMP, making ships much less vulnerable, and a proliferation of private armed security guards aboard commercial ships has given pirates serious reason to pause. Finally, back on land international support has been given to Africa’s legal and prison systems, making the continent better able to prosecute and imprison suspected pirates.

Anti-Piracy Technologies

Razor Wire
  • Ringing guard rails
  • Also available in deployable canisters
Electric Fencing
  • Lines ship with 9000-volt razor wire protection
  • Delivers non-lethal shock
  • Collapsible when not in use
Boat Traps
  • Deployment of lines or nets into water to seize motors of pirate ships
Water Cannons
  • Some can fire 1,400 gallons/minute 100 yards in any direction
  • Tremendous force to batter pirates or even quickly flood pirate ships
  • Remote controllable from secure location via security cameras
Mobility Denial System
  • Slippery nontoxic foam
  • Originally developed for military crowd-control applications
  • Works on almost any surface
  • Coating pirate vessel, ropes, ladders, steps or hull of ship renders surfaces too slippery to cross
Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD)
  • High-powered directional loudspeaker
  • Lets ship hail an approaching vessel at over 1 mile
  • Features recordings of useful phrases in dozens of languages, like "You must leave the area immediately," in Somali
  • Alerts pirates that they’ve lost the element of surprise
  • Also has a piercing, painful “deterrent tone” that can cause permanent hearing loss for those in the line of sound
Anti-Pirate Lasers
  • Uses high power green beam to disorient and temporarily blind pirates
  • Makes it impossible to aim weapons
  • Effective at up to a mile
  • Does not cause permanent damage
Foul-Smelling Liquid
  • Sprayed from deck-mounted cannons
  • Causes burning sensation and nausea
  • Often forces pirates to jump into water to clean themselves
Anti-Piracy Curtain
  • Ultra-high power water hoses that dangle off sides of ship
  • Spray sea water at force of .2 megapascals
  • Heavy hoses whip and swing around erratically to hit anyone attempting to board
Stun Grenades
  • Deployed by hand
  • Produce blinding flash and loud noise
  • Severely disorienting, but nonlethal
Satellite Monitoring of Ships
  • If ship is hijacked and taken off-course or loses communication, it can be rapidly tracked and intercepted by authorities

Are Guns the Answer?

When piracy first began to resurge in the 1990s, a debate began about the pros and cons of arming seafarers. Detractors were quick to point out that guns on ships are dangerous (especially for ships carrying flammable cargo, like oil or gas), legally complicated, likely to escalate violence with better-armed pirates, not guaranteed to be effective, and remarkably expensive. In fact, even unarmed guards cost $12,000 to $18,000 for a 3- to 5-day transit, while armed guards (most of whom are ex-military) charge up to $200,000 per transit.

What’s more, many ports today deny entry to armed ships.

So for many years, commercial shippers were wary about arming their vessels. But prominent and outspoken proponents like Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of the US Fifth Fleet, urged the armament, saying that armed guards frequently protected assets ashore, and should similarly be used at sea.

So after much heated debate in 2008-09, “most merchant vessels in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden are now employing armed and unarmed security teams, along with other protection measures.”

As the Telegraph reported, “Within months in 2010 armed guards went from being a risky prospect to the industry standard for the world’s big shipping firms plying these waters. Now, there are hundreds of armed guards at sea off the coast of Somalia on any one day”