An international contact group on piracy off the coast of Somalia says that while attempted ship hijackings were up last year, the success rate was down. The group attributes this positive trend to measures it has urged vessels passing through the vulnerable waters of the Gulf of Aden to adopt. But diplomats say not all captains are following these preventative measures.
For the past year, an international naval presence has patrolled the pirate-infested waters off the coast of Somalia. They escort merchant vessels carrying vital humanitarian aid from the World Food Program to Somalia, protect vulnerable ships in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, and try to deter and disrupt piracy with their presence.
Contact Group Chairman Carl Salicath of Norway said their efforts are bearing fruit, but not everyone is following practices that could protect them from falling prey to pirates.
"Successful hijacks are almost exclusively on ships not complying with the best management practices adopted by this group," said Carl Salicath. "This is by far the most important measure against piracy. But still only 70-75 percent of the ships passing through the Gulf of Aden follow the preventative measures. Our challenge is to achieve a much higher level of compliance with the best management practices."
These so-called 'best management practices' include simple self-protection measures that would prevent pirates boarding a vessel, such as blocking passageways onto the ship and driving at high speeds and in a zigzag motion.
Captain Paul Chivers of the European Union's naval operation said pirates are currently holding nine major vessels, with 230 crew members, off the Somali coast. They also have six or seven smaller boats.
More than 20 countries belong to the international force patrolling those waters. On Thursday at the one year anniversary meeting of the group at U.N. headquarters, it was announced that China has decided to join the coalition. Currently China only escorts its flagged vessels in the area, but starting in the next 4 to 6 weeks it will contribute at least one ship to the naval presence, which usually consists of six warships.
Captain Chivers explained the importance of the Chinese decision.
"Which is extremely good news and will allow us to surge other assets in to the Somali basin where pirate activity remains at an all time high," he said.
The International Maritime Bureau recorded 214 attempted hijackings last year in the Gulf of Aden and the area of the Indian Ocean known as the Somali basin. Of those, 47 were successful.
Chivers said attacks in the Gulf of Aden are down considerably, but not in the Somali basin where they have increased.
Once pirates are caught, they can either be tried in the country of the navy that apprehended them, or sent to a regional state for prosecution. Kenya has been particularly active in this process. Currently, officials say 77 suspected pirates are awaiting trial there. The International Contact Group is establishing a Trust Fund to help pay for trials in regional countries.
Experts and diplomats agree that piracy off Somalia's coast is a symptom of the larger problem of that country's instability and weak government institutions. They say to bring law and order on the seas, it first must be restored on the ground.