The following narrative accompanies Dryad’s maritime crime figures for Quarter 1 (January to March) of 2015, assessing the situation across our main areas of maritime interest. The report is not limited to traditional piracy and maritime crime, but includes commentary on other threats and issues; from civil war and terrorism in Yemen and Libya to criminal gang enabled mass migration – areas and issues upon which we report regularly to our clients. The narrative, compiled by Dryad’s regional analysts, is set against a highly visible, complex and dynamic international backdrop.
The actions of the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Saudi coalition response continues to impact on maritime trade, whilst reports of potential Iranian maritime support to the Houthi rebels adds to the rhetoric and tension of long-standing differences. In the Mediterranean, the tragic situation on mass migration continues to dominate the news with disturbing stories of massive loss of life that is impacting commercial vessels as they render assistance, alongside others, to those in peril on the sea. In Nigeria, the election of a new President and his supporting administration may lead to some hope on regional maritime security, but it would be prudent not to hold our breath on this one, as the new leader faces more significant security challenges outside the maritime domain from the threat of Boko Haram and of widespread corruption. In this region, and in Southeast Asia, there are no signs of any let up in the scope and scale of maritime crime, whilst the once pre-eminent Somali pirate threat continues to be broadly contained, by the combination of naval forces, armed guards and best practice and calmed by a changing situation ashore. That said, worrying signs of illegal fishing off Somalia, by some nations emboldened by the lack of pirate activity, risks a return to the first phase of Somali piracy if unchecked by nascent maritime constabulary operations; an area worthy of international support. History does have a habit of repeating itself!
In sum, the first few months of 2015 have demonstrated, in the most visible way possible, just how complex and sometimes dangerous the maritime domain can be, as well as how important it is to maintain awareness, treat the risks and avoid complacency at all costs. We hope that these regular updates from Dryad Maritime will serve as an important first step for all with responsibilities and interest in maritime trade and especially in support of the seafarers upon whom we all rely to keep the lights on and the world fed.
Ian Millen, Chief Operating Officer
There has been a reduction from the high number of incidents from 75 in Q4 2014 to 56 in Q1 2015. Although the total number of incidents are down by 36% when compared to the last quarter of 2014, there has been a continuation of attacks against vessels underway in the Singapore Strait. The hijacking and subsequent theft of fuel cargo from small regional product tankers, so prevalent during 2014, has shown no sign of letting up. There have been four vessels hijacked for this purpose, three of which were successful and one in which the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) managed to intercept resulting in the arrest of nine hijackers. Despite this rare law enforcement success, hijackings continue. We have also seen a product tanker hijacked off northern Sulawesi; this vessel was eventually recovered after it ran aground in the Philippines. The exact reason for this hijacking has not been confirmed.
In the Singapore Strait, the first three months of this year saw 18 vessels boarded while underway, which is also a continuation of the type of crime witnessed in Q4 2014. The majority of these have occurred in the eastbound lane of the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) between Pulau Karimun Kecil and Pulau Besar. Despite warnings broadcast by the Singapore Vessel Traffic Information System (VTIS), vessels are failing to establish suitable lookout routines and security provisions. The coastal nations for the Straits (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) do not appear to provide effective, routine patrols in the most problematic areas, thus allowing these criminal gangs to operate almost at will.
Two very similar incidents were reported in the Sulu Sea in March; on each occasion the vessels were approached by four speedboats while in transit to the northwest of the Sulu Archipelago. In the first incident a mother vessel was reported and the personnel in the speed boats were wearing camouflage clothing. In both incidents, the vessels’ masters carried out anti-piracy manoeuvres and called the security service on VHF radio which resulted in the speed boats retreating. There is no history of events like this in the area; however, the Philippines based Islamist terror group Abu Sayyaf have been known to carry out operations at sea and were responsible for at least three kidnapping incidents from fish farms, a holiday resort and from a yacht near Sabah, Malaysia in 2014.
In the South China Sea two vessels reported incidents between Tioman Island and the Anambas Islands, this area saw high numbers of boardings and subsequent robberies from vessels underway during 2010/11 but incidents have since been very sporadic.
Boarding and robbery from vessels at anchor in the major ports of Indonesia has again declined, with only the ports of Belawan and Jakarta seeing more than one incident. The same cannot be said about Vietnam where there have been multiple vessel boardings in the anchorages at Vung Tau and within 35 NM of Hai Phong.
In the coming three months we can expect to see further cargo theft related hijackings in the South China Sea and Malacca Strait. The boarding and theft of ships’ stores from vessels underway within the Singapore Strait will, without intervention of the security forces, continue unabated, whilst petty theft from vessels anchored at the major ports across Southeast Asia will also continue, but in low numbers.
Indian Ocean HRA
Q1 in the Indian Ocean HRA is dominated by the Northeast Monsoon, which brings moderate winds and sea states to the northern Arabian Sea and along the east coast of Somalia. These conditions do not preclude piracy, but despite 26 advisory notices being issued by UKMTO, there have been no confirmed piracy incidents. A number of these advisories described the personnel in the approaching craft as wearing ‘yellow rain coats’. This attire is consistent with Yemeni fishermen operating in strong winds and sea states which are prevalent during the first months of the year. Of note, some 89% of vessel reporting incidents to UKMTO were carrying a security team, of which on 39% of the approaches fired warning shots. On no occasion were there any reports of weapons discharged from any suspect skiffs.
There has been much recent talk of a return to illegal fishing off the coast of Somalia, with the reduction in piracy emboldening international fishing vessels to venture close to Somali shores. In Q1, we saw a report of two Iranian fishing vessels being arrested. Whilst the exact circumstances behind this reported incident have not been released, the speculation that these FVs were hijacked by a pirate gang appears to be unfounded, given that the F/V crews were reportedly handed over to Somali local government officials. The political situation ashore in Somalia has changed during the last three years and local clan leaders are much less likely to allow hijacked vessels to lay off their land. The Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) has also expanded, providing a basic form of civil governance to many areas. However, it should not be forgotten that the catalyst for Somali piracy was illegal fishing.
The disintegration of Yemen into civil war during March has seen the closure of seaports around the country. A coalition of Muslim nations led by Saudi Arabia commenced daily bombing raids against Yemen’s Houthi rebels and warships from Saudi and Egypt commenced blockades of ports. Some national naval assets involved in the anti-piracy convoy system in the Gulf of Aden were re-tasked to evacuate foreign nationals from Yemen. The complex situation in Yemeni waters and ports is well reported and, at the time of writing, there is currently no political or military solution in the offing.
The inter-monsoonal period of Q2 has been the signal for wide scale piracy in the Indian Ocean in previous years. Wind speeds and sea states during April and May are at their most benign levels, offering the best conditions to operate small craft away from the east coast of Somalia. There is, however, no evidence to suggest a return to large-scale deployments of pirates into the open seas in 2015 with the capability of Somali pirates to conduct long-range operations severely curtailed. The continued presence of international navies along the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden, coupled with the proliferation of armed security guards onboard merchant shipping, makes for an environment, which is not conducive to successful attempts at hijack. We have not seen a confirmed attack by Somali pirates in two years. Although not impossible, Dryad assess it is unlikely that this inter-monsoonal period will see any return to piracy.
Gulf of Guinea
In the Gulf of Guinea, kidnapping of crew for ransom remains the most significant threat to mariners in the region. In March 2015, eight crew were taken in three separate incidents off the shores of Rivers and Akwa Ibom States in Nigeria. Three mariners have since been released from captivity after being taken from MT Kalamos on 03 March, unfortunately a crewmember died by gunfire during the incident. Another five crew were kidnapped in attacks against support vessel MV Maridive 603 and floating storage tanker MT Yoho.
There have been no reported kidnappings off Bayelsa State, Nigeria in the first quarter of this year, an historical hotbed for such crime. MV Jascon 24 was attacked in late January in this area; a Nigerian naval rating was shot and killed during that incident, which was almost certainly another attempt at taking crew for ransom. The threat of kidnap in both regions of Bayelsa and Akwa Ibom’s offshore waters remains, and further attacks are likely.
There has been a single incident of cargo theft thus far in the Gulf of Guinea this year when maritime criminals took a small product tanker MT Mariam off the coast of Warri on 11 January. The Ghanaian Navy eventually detained the vessel on 17 January and eight armed pirates were arrested. The threat to product tankers of hijacking and theft of their cargo remains.
A further incident of note was when bulk carrier MV Ocean Splendor was fired upon and boarded by eight armed pirates over 150 NM south east of Accra, Ghana on 14 Jan. Some of the crew were assaulted as the gang ransacked the ship. Given the number of pirates involved and the range at which this incident took place, it is highly probable that the gang’s initial motive for being in the area had been to target product tankers for cargo theft, with the absence of a suitable target leading to an opportunistic attack on Ocean Splendor.
Two weeks after the above incident, a large fishing vessel was hijacked 30 NM south of Takoradi, Ghana for just such a purpose. The gang had intended to use the vessel as a mother ship from which to launch attacks against tankers, but having been pursued by maritime security vessels, they left the ship. One of the crew tragically drowned as he made his escape from the gang.
Overall, there have been 18 confirmed incidents reported during the first quarter of 2015 compared with 22 during the same period last year and records are generally consistent with the number of recorded incidents from previous years.
Presidential elections held in Nigeria during the final week of March resulted in defeat for Goodluck Johnathan. Muhammadu Buhari is now tasked with fixing the economy, defeating Boko Haram, and also overcoming the corruption that is rife at all levels of authority within the country. We are unlikely to see any immediate relief in the maritime domain as the new president gets to grips with significant political and security challenges on land.
The extremely unstable political and military situation within Libya continues and is having an effect on normal shipping trading operations as is the humanitarian crisis of Mediterranean migration emanating from this troubled land and others.
Oil export is of critical importance to Libya’s economy; however, only the ports of Marsa al Hariga in Tobruk, and to a lesser degree nearby Zuetina showed any degree of effective operations in Q1. Crucially, in the final week of March 2014 Islamist militia forces withdrew from their advanced positions in the area of Ras Lanuf and As Sidr. This enabled government forces to regain control of the area surrounding the two port cities which are host (when fully operational) to Libya’s first and third largest oil export terminals. It is hoped that both ports could commence trading within a matter of weeks bringing a major boost to Libya’s economy and greater credence to the government. At the time of writing, the Islamist backed administration that claims to be the ‘rival government’, based in Tripoli, remains in control of the western terminals at Mellitah and Zawiya.
Highlighting the dangers posed to legitimate shipping in Libyan waters, and also the poor communication that often exists between government and military forces, MT Araevo was bombed off Derna by the Libyan Air Force on 4 January. During the attack, two crewmembers were killed. The Libyan Air Force claimed that the ship did not have permission to call at Derna, despite the tanker being on lease to the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC).
During Q1, some militia aligned themselves with the Islamic State terror group, albeit after defeat on the battlefield, therefore posing an even greater threat to foreign workers within the country. Despite some early sensationalist reporting about the potential for Islamic State attacks at sea in Q1, specifically against superyachts, the threat has not materialised. Dryad’s analysis indicates that while theoretically possible, an incident is unlikely to materialise in the near future offshore. The ability for IS to operate in any meaningful way in offshore areas is assessed to be beyond their current capabilities and outside their priorities, given the heavy fighting for control on land.
The risk to foreigners ashore in Libya remains high throughout the country, with visiting workers in danger of inadvertently being caught up in the heavy fighting ashore, as well as facing the threat of kidnap. These conditions mean that vessel crews should not leave the confines of any terminals or ports.
Plans for a return of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) supported by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), based on board the rescue ship Phoenix, was announced and is likely in May 2015. In expectation of an increase in the numbers of migrants fleeing from Libya, the vessel will be stationed in the central Mediterranean from May to October. The number of people attempting to cross from North Africa to Europe is already significantly up from the same period last year and at the time of writing, tragic events continue to unfold as desperate people die at the hands of unscrupulous people smugglers and rescue forces struggle to cope with the volume of traffic. Commercial vessels are already engaged in rescue operations involving large numbers of migrants and there is a risk of stowaways trying to make their way on board whilst vessels are in ports and anchorage areas. Threats to navigation and further tragedies lie in wait as traffickers act covertly and with unlit boats at night.
Latin America and Caribbean
Maritime crime has been reported in the waters of Columbia, Venezuela, Honduras, Brazil and throughout the Caribbean. Q1 has seen a rise in the number of reported incidents in South America and the Caribbean with 13 reported incidents. Two of these incidents were boardings and robberies from MVs at anchor in Cartagena, Columbia. The remainder were robberies from sailing and pleasure craft. Instances of petty theft from MVs around the area are reported regularly, but not in the numbers seen in Southeast Asia. The present economic decline in Venezuela could lead to a rise in criminal activity around the coastline. Theft from yachts and small pleasure craft, although known to happen regularly, are seldom reported on international databases. However, so far in 2015 we have seen a marked increase in reporting mainly from yachting websites, many of these incidents involve the use of violence. Dryad has no evidence to suggest that crime in Latin America and the Caribbean will develop in the near future to more frequent attacks on larger vessels. If it did, it would most likely resemble the majority of low-level incidents seen in Southeast Asia, rather than the more serious kidnap or hijack seen in the Gulf of Guinea or Indian Ocean.