The rise in piracy off the Somali coast has resulted in more global piracy cases in 2009 than in all of 2008, according to a maritime watchdog group. Despite the rise in attacks, the number of successful hijackings has fallen.
The International Maritime Bureau of the International Chamber of Commerce, reports 306 piracy incidents have been reported in the first three quarters of 2009 compared to 293 reported in all of 2008.
The group attributes the jumps in total attacks from last year to Somali pirates. Attacks in the Gulf of Aden have nearly doubled, and attacks east of the Somali coast have increased nearly four-fold.
The piracy appears to be increasing in armed intensity as well. The group reports the number of attacks that involved the use of firearms has doubled from 2008.
International Maritime Bureau Director Pottengal Mukundan sees a silver lining in the grim statistics.
"What is very interesting is that the number of vessels, which have been successfully hijacked, [has] gone down from the figures last year," Mukundan said.
Mukundan attributes the drop in hijackings both to the greater use of international navy patrols in the dangerous waters, as well as better prepared crews who brave the risky shipping lanes.
He says captains of these ships are learning how to out-savvy the pirates in case of an attack, using evasive tactics that keep the ship moving even as the pirates open fire.
Somalis claim organized piracy developed out of efforts by local fisherman to protect against illicit overfishing by outsiders taking advantage of the country's inner turmoil. Once bands of fisherman developed the capacity to move further out to sea and defend their coastline against unwanted intruders, some soon realized the potential booming business of hijacking the mostly defenseless cargo ships in the area.
According to Mukundan, piracy can only be fully addressed on land, where pirates are able to arrange funding and to operate with near-impunity.
"The key to the problem of Somalia is in Somalia itself. And what we have seen the last three or four months is action taken, for example, by the state of Puntland in Somalia to catch some of these pirates and put them on trial and punish them," Mukundan said. "This is very important because it is the local community taking responsibility for the local criminals and punishing them under their own laws."
The number of piracy incidents waned in the third quarter of 2009 due largely to monsoon winds in the area that kept most pirates from venturing far out to sea. But the attacks have started to pick back up.
Pirates attacked two ships off the eastern Africa coast Thursday, only one of which successfully fended off their assailants. On Monday, a Chinese bulk carrier was hijacked and is being held for ransom.