Surge of Piracy amid Coronavirus Outbreak

Surge of Piracy amid Coronavirus Outbreak

The last quarterly report from the International Maritime Bureau shows the negative effects of the Covid-19 on maritime security. There tend to be significant upswings of piracy during times of economic downturn, and the economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic is largely to blame for the resurgence of this global menace.

The surge in piracy attacks in the Gulf of Guinea and the Malacca Straits, as recorded by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), can be directly linked to flaws in the security management of the ports and shipping lanes amid the expansion of the virus. To counteract this development, the signatory states of maritime security treaties are implementing new policies in order to provide more resilient security against offshore threats. 

A trend correlated to confinement 

This trend appears to be on the rise in multiple regions.  A comparison with preceding years shows an increase in violence on ships both off and on shore, the latter being something of a novelty. Indeed, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), 2019 had been synonymous with a 25-year low in the number of piracy and armed robbery attacks. But the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have reversed that trend.

The rise in piracy attacks appears to correlate with the spread of the virus in January until the global deconfinement in June.  It also correlates with how the ships are stranded due to quarantining. 

The peak was in March, as many ships were immobilized at sea and in ports, preventing their crew replacement, and therefore depleting their resistance to piracy. Consistent with this escalation, the  Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery (ReCAAP) announced that attacks have returned to the Gulf of Mexico, a key hub for oil storage. 

An increased activity in traditional piracy hotspots 

Geographically, Africa sustained most of the attacks, with almost half of the reported incidents of the two last quarters of 2020.  These attacks have mostly been reported in the Gulf of Guinea, with the International Maritime Bureau advising to reinforce the security of ships during the pandemic. 

According to the UNODC, this increase of attacks is explained by the freeze in activities on the docks due to quarantining, and a sharp decrease in incomes for already fragile shore populations. 

98 incidents of piracy were reported in the first half of 2020, compared with 78 in the same period of time in 2019. Mainly this represents 81 vessels boarded, 10 attempted attacks, six vessels fired upon and one hijacked.  It also happened that 54 crews were reported kidnapped in 10 different incidents, 90% of which took place in the Gulf of Guinea.

The number of kidnappings decreased by 60% following the partial return to normality after confinement, between the first and the second quarter of 2020. The West African coast has been particularly dangerous due to the lack of both equipment and manpower to reduce the threat, as well as the vast areas to cover in order to effectively deter piracy. Possessing reserves in oil and gas, its waters are endangered by the presence of a relatively well-trained militia that has honed its skills fighting in the Delta’s secessionist movement. They target both ships and human capital. In April, pirates attacked a floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel with a capacity of 50,000 barrels per day off the coast of Nigeria and kidnapped nine crew members, leaving the oil cargo intact.

According to Alex Kimani, the fall in oil price led pirates in the Western Hemisphere and Africa to give up on oil and to focus on ransom and onboard valuables. 

« Oil majors such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, ENI, Shell, and Total with operations out of Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, and Gabon remain at high risk of experiencing piracy-related disruptions in their West African supply chains. »

A global setback on reducing piracy?

The lack of resilience in the infrastructure of port security and a diminished ability to react to unexpected events like the spread of Covid-19 were identified by the UNODC as factors in this rise in piracy. 

According to Professor Brandon Prins, from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, this trend, if not corrected, might incentivize more people to participate in piracy:

“My fear has always been that Covid-19 would reduce global trade which lowers growth, increases poverty and joblessness (and then) leads to more sea piracy,” he added.

There is certainly a concern that with trade going down there will be fewer sailors on board ships (and therefore) fewer crew monitoring for potential pirates or armed robbers.”

This situation explains the increase in the boarding of ships; immobile ships are less secure.

However, it is interesting to see that the policies promoted to prevent hijacking and firearm use against commercial ships bore fruit, with no notable increase during the peak of the crisis. 

In this matter, the implementation of international treaties such as the Yaoundé Code of Conduct, a comprehensive regional maritime security framework aimed at enhancing cooperation and information-sharing in the wider Gulf of Guinea have been central in preventing a further degradation of the situation, by making it more difficult for criminals to rebuild their networks. Despite piracy and armed robbery at sea being the main reasons the Yaounde Code of Conduct was created, the Code of Conduct also focuses on myriad illicit maritime activities, including illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, maritime terrorism, narcotics and wildlife trafficking, and maritime pollution, thereby developing the possibility of a brighter long term outlook.


Categories: Africa, Under The Radar

About Author

Theo Locherer

Théo Locherer has received a master’s degree in international Relations from the University of Edinburgh. He worked previously as an international development coordinator in Senegal for the Mbour regional Parliament. Before writing at GRI, he was a volunteer risk analyst for Peace Brigade International in France. His focus is on maritime security, more specifically in West Africa and South East Asia.