by Douglas B. Stevenson, Director, Center for Seafarers’ Rights
Piracy off the coast of Somalia appears to be under control—at least for now. Although Somali pirates still hold two vessels and 64 seafarers hostage, pirate attacks on commercial vessels in the waters off Somalia have fallen to the lowest levels since 2007, when the problem of piracy in that area began receiving international attention. The downturn in Somali piracy has shifted attention to piracy and armed robbery in West African waters, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea off Nigeria.
The piracy threats in West Africa are very different from those in East Africa. Whereas Somali pirates attacked ships to hold them and their crews hostage for high ransoms, in West Africa, piracy and armed robbery at sea generally take three forms: stealing seafarers’ personal property and the ship’s stores; kidnapping with political motives (with shorter captivity and lower ransoms than Somali piracy); and stealing ships’ cargoes (normally oil). The West African forms of piracy have persisted for many years at fairly consistent levels, although the actual number of attacks is unknown due to underreporting.
Up to now, solutions to West African piracy and armed robbery at sea have been elusive. The same strategies used in Somalia do not necessary apply to the Gulf of Guinea. Unlike apolitical Somalia, West African nations have functioning governments with individual legal systems and sovereignty concerns, presenting a different set of issues to confront when determining how best to respond to piracy incidents.
I recently participated in a high-level working group in London organized by the non-governmental organization Oceans Beyond Piracy to share information and ideas on how to confront West African piracy and armed robbery. Participants included representatives from governments, shipowners’ organizations, the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Program, the International Maritime Organization, NATO, European Commission and Oceans Beyond Piracy.
I led the working group’s discussion on seafarer concerns regarding West African piracy, noting the progress that has been made since 2007 in placing seafarers’ issues on the piracy agenda. Seafarers find sailing in West African waters much more stressful, and they feel much more vulnerable than they do off the coast of Somalia. Ships sail to West Africa as a destination, not just as a transit through a region. Accordingly, they cannot sail around the high-risk areas. They must go right through them, and, unlike the waters off Somalia, there are no international naval patrols to protect them or respond to an attack. As one participant remarked, “You can report a pirate attack off West Africa, but the cavalry never shows up.” In addition, ships do not employ professional security teams in West African waters because of legal restrictions there.
The working group acknowledged the advancements since 2007 in creating resources for seafarers affected by piracy, particularly those provided by the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Program and SCI. However, many seafarers do not take advantage of proven mental health therapies because of the stigmas associated with them, afraid that they might jeopardize their careers if they seek mental health care.
 The drop in Somali piracy seems to be due to three factors: merchant vessels following the maritime industry’s best management principles; aggressive, coordinated anti-piracy patrols by many nations’ naval vessels; and merchant vessels deploying professional security teams while transiting high-risk areas.