Events over recent weeks of hijackings and piracy off the coast of Somalia have once again prompted shipowners to raise the question of whether more naval vessels should be sent to the region.

In mid-March a new hijacking happened after several years without notable pirate activity, which had been diminished by a combination of navy forces in the area and a new practice among shipowners, now sailing faster and further from the coast, and additionally recruiting security guards on board as well as installing barbed wire and water canons on the rail.

Later on, fears came true as other vessels experienced hijackings. In early April, Reuters reported the hijacking of an Indian vessel where the 11 crew members were held hostage.

"The latest registered piracy activity proves that Somali based piracy was never completely defeated. That was also one of the reasons for EU to extend the mandate of Operation ATALANTA until December 2018. We think it is important that the current situation is monitored closely and addressed timely, so we don't see a recurrence of the piracy activity we saw years back," says Secretary General for the European Community Shipowners' Association (ECSA), Patrick Verhoeven, in a comment to ShippingWatch.

Few navy vessels left

Another obvious challenge today is that not many naval vessels remain to protect the merchant fleet or directly combat the pirates, said CEO of Risk Intelligence, Hans Tino Hansen, to ShippingWatch recently.

"There are hardly any naval forces left today. It's a priority matter in a situation where there are obvious conflicts in countries such as Syria and Libya. There used to be vessels with helicopters pursuing the pirate vessels. When the efforts peaked, there were 45 vessels in the region. Today there are very few vessels which only escort the commercial fleet, and none that pursue the pirates. When the commercial vessels sail closer to the coast, it's easier for the pirates to attack."

New hijacking could change the situation off the coast of Somalia  

According to Hansen, this is not a general case of medium-large and large global carriers having "eased too much" in terms of security. On the contrary, he estimates that the carriers operate with a security level above what is required for the current risk evaluation. Oftentimes it is a matter of smaller, regional carriers, which have never had a high contingency level, that end up in danger of piracy. And there is also the fact that there are now far fewer naval vessels in the region.

Navy forces are one model

So far, the Danish Shipowners' Association plans to evaluate the situation over time. The European shipowners generally take this same stance, but it might prove necessary to ask for more military assistance, Verhoeven adds. He is the shipowners' link to the EU and the joint navy forces.

"Overall, It is crucial to constantly monitor and assess the force flow, and based on intelligence and any development of the situation, that the EU is willing to address any signs of recurrence of piracy activity in a timely manner. That might indeed mean that more naval assets should be deployed in the area. But it is too early to make any clear decision on whether the current number of ships used is the problem, and therefore state that more naval assets should be used, serving as a solution to this," he says.

Hijackings in the region led to major problems for international shipping from 2001 to 2012 and peaked in 2011 with 176 attacks.

English Edit: Gretchen Deverell Pedersen

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