September 5, 2017


An ounce of prevention, a pound of cure

The shifting and varied nature of maritime piracy make generalisations about its impact a dangerous business, but while the naval and security presence off Somalia has deterred its return there, it is flourishing elsewhere.

While ships are at risk from piracy in numerous areas of the world, they are particularly vulnerable to robbery in Asia and West Africa. Such attacks tend to take place not on the high seas but in ports or at anchorages, where it can be almost impossible for enforcement to provide an effective response, if it exists at all.

This creates risks of a different kind, often less focussed on kidnap and ransom and more on crime that is more about theft of money and goods. The cash culture that still prevails onboard ship encourages criminals to see them as a lucrative source of income.

NGO Oceans Beyond Piracy notes that, while in East Africa monthly incidents in 2016 averaged between zero and four with no successful hijackings recorded, on the other side of the continent, the situation worsened dramatically.

Leading the increase in West Africa were kidnap for ransom attacks, with 18 incidents during which seafarers were kidnapped from merchant vessels. Failed attacks were likely attempts to kidnap seafarers as well, OBP reckons.

The agency also recorded 13 cases of robbery and several failed boardings and attacks in West Africa that did not involve a significant degree of violence. In most of the successful boardings, the perpetrators escaped when they were discovered by crew members who then sounded the alarm.

Robberies occur regularly at many anchorage areas in West Africa where arguably the most telling factor is the heavy local traffic, which often involves small fishing and passenger boats as well as other vessels.

OBP says it is virtually impossible for domestic law enforcement agencies to provide comprehensive security around anchorages, and the daily patterns of life in the region often include interactions between local traffic and merchant vessels. In the 13 recorded cases of robbery, 287 seafarers were aboard the vessels targeted, none of whom suffered injuries.

In Asia, 2016 was a year of improvement with fewer seafarers affected and a decrease in the number of hijackings for cargo theft. However, an increase in kidnap for ransom incidents in the Sulu and Celebes Seas, and particularly the associated violence perpetrated on seafarers in these attacks, are causing great alarm.

The decrease in the number of incidents in 2016 compared to 2015, especially in crime-prone areas, can be attributed to more effective joint coordinated patrols and surveillance by littoral states, information sharing mechanisms employed by regional information bodies, and cooperation between regional authorities, partner organizations, and the shipping community.

What is notable about attacks in Asia is that the number of incidents which took place at anchorage was greater than those at sea. Attacks in this region have tended to focus more on robbery from the vessel and crew as well as potential cargo theft.

So, while the industry has shown itself adept at putting in place resources and practices to protect vessels from high seas piracy, there is still a need for shipowners to adopt better techniques to protect crews from the threat of armed robbery.

The first and most obvious solution would be to remove cash from the vessel as far as possible. Not unlike navigation charts, cash is often held on ship on a ‘just in case’ basis and its uses vary widely from legitimate emergencies to oiling the wheels of commerce.

There are cashless solutions available but so far the industry seems not to have grasped the benefits of reducing the risk of carrying around large amounts of money in what remain some endemically dangerous areas of the world.

It’s a problem ripe for some new thinking and likely some new technology too. The recent announcements by some shipping lines and software providers that they are looking into Blockchain solutions in the supply chain suggests there is a growing willingness to improve the quality and veracity of information flow.

Of course, the technology that is being touted as a solution to enhance the security, transparency and efficiency of the supply chain networks has its roots partly in the crypto-currency Bitcoin so is well-positioned to manage not just physical contracts but financial ones too.

The implementation of Blockchain technology for regional supply chain operations and trade finance could be a significant endorsement of the idea of ‘decentralised’ transactions which at present are still covered by swathes of paper and multiple processes that must take place in order to make world trade move.

Given the large amount of computing and processing power that Blockchain requires to run the kind of applications that could govern financial contracts, it’s not a simple solution for shipboard currency. A maritime version for operational transactions, crew pay and so forth would need to be Blockchain-lite.

But given that the transactions would be taking place elsewhere it is arguable that the ship would only need to receive notifications and presumably have the ability to provide some collateral in case of problems.

In the world outside the Microsoft campus or the hacker’s bedroom, the success of Bitcoin could even be seen as a model for safe, secure and confidential transactions. Since it is likely that tobacco will remain semi-legal tender in world trade for some time to come, it seems churlish to reject the idea of a transactional system that would use dollars instead.

That would leave the seafarers free to use credit and debit cards to pay for internet access and expenses ashore and might act as a deterrent to thieves if they know there is less likely to be cash onboard the ship.

It won’t stop piracy, nor put an end to robbery or kidnap for ransom, but removing the incentive for crime is key. As law enforcement agencies point out, a few ounces of prevention are better than a few pounds of cure.

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