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Adding to the COVID19 hardships already faced by seafarers, 2020 saw a year-on-year increase in global piracy, with a record 130 crew kidnapped in the Gulf of Guinea, a continuing rising trend of armed robberies against vessels in the Singapore Strait, and no improvements for robbery incidents in South America.

Global piracy and armed robbery numbers increased in 2020, according to the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre (IMB PRC). Its latest annual report lists a total of 195 actual and attempted attacks in 2020, up from 162 in 2019 and the agency attributes the rise to an increase of piracy and armed robbery reported within the Gulf of Guinea as well as increased armed robbery activity in the Singapore Straits. The figures are broken down as three vessels hijacked, 161 vessels boarded, 20 attempted attacks, and 11 vessels fired upon. The report also warns of an alarming trend in kidnap for ransom incidents. Globally 135 crews were kidnapped from their vessels in 2020, compared to 134 in 2019, with the Gulf of Guinea accounting for more than 95% of crew numbers kidnapped. 

The incidents recorded by the IMB PRC in 2020 were fairly evenly split between vessels at anchor and vessels underway. Attacks on vessels at berth are still less common and accounted for only 7% of all incidents recorded in 2020. While the typical merchant vessels, such as tankers, bulk carriers, container vessels, and general cargo vessels were involved in more than 80% of all the incidents recorded in 2020, the data from the IMB PRC shows that all types of vessels were targeted. Incident reports from tugs, fishing vessels and various offshore support vessels, and even an FPSO and a drilling ship, are also part of the 2020 statistics.

There is reportedly no evidence to suggest that the coronavirus pandemic has had an immediate impact on security threats at sea. However, it could be argued that the pandemic, at least over time, may indirectly affect the overall risk related to piracy and armed robbery at sea. Crew fatigue and a reduction in a crew’s ability to perform security procedures diligently may impact the safety level of a vessel. Congestions at anchorages of crew change hubs could provide increased opportunities for perpetrators. Likewise, a worsening of the economic and political conditions of a country can potentially create motivation for increased criminal activity, including at sea.

What we do know is that the level of threat from piracy and armed robbery at sea, as well as the opportunity for and modus operandi of the perpetrators, differs from one geographical region to another and may also change quickly. Our general advise to ship operators with vessels operating in piracy prone regions is therefore to continue to maintain a heightened state of vigilance, closely monitor the situation, via the IMB website and staying in close contact with their local agents as well as with regional authorities, conduct voyage specific risk assessments, and adopt and implement relevant preventive measures following best management practices and other available industry guidelines. On Gard’s webpage “Piracy and armed robbery at sea”, you can find a compilation of links to relevant websites, guidelines and Gard material that may assist ship operators, masters and crews to stay alert and prepare and respond to piracy and armed robbery attacks.

Africa

There is no doubt that the Gulf of Guinea presents a serious and immediate threat to the safety and security of crews and vessels operating in the region. The IMB PRC recorded a total of 84 piracy and armed robbery incidents against vessels in the Gulf of Guinea in 2020, a year-on-year increase of more than 30% for this region alone. The region accounted for all three vessel hijackings that occurred in 2020, as well as nine out of 11 vessels that reported coming under fire.

The Gulf of Guinea region also recorded the highest ever number of crews kidnapped, with 130 crews taken in 22 separate incidents. Of particular concern is the fact that attacks are increasingly violent, the use of guns were reported in more than 80% of the incidents in the region in 2020, they occur farther from shore, and larger groups of seafarers are kidnapped per incident.

The urgency of the situation in the region is further underlined by the fatal attack on the container vessel MOZART on 23 January 2021. According to the IMB PRC, the vessel was underway around 98 nm NW of Sao Tome and Principe when she was boarded by an unknown number of pirates, resulting in one crew being killed and 15 crew members kidnapped. The agency therefore warns masters and crews to be extra cautious and to take the necessary precautionary measures when transiting the Gulf of Guinea. It further reminds vessels to go for direct berthing if possible, not drift off the coast, and to keep at least 250 nm from the coast.

The situation off Nigeria continues to be the main concern for vessels and crews trading to the Gulf of Guinea. While the majority of incidents and number of crew kidnapped in the region can still be attributed to Nigeria, the fact that pirates are being observed attacking vessels further out to sea also affects Nigeria’s neighbouring countries. According to the IMB PRC, Benin, Ghana, Angola and Guinea, in addition to Nigeria, represented the top five locations for incidents recorded in the Gulf of Guinea in 2020. The IMB PRC’s data for the last five years also shows that an increasing number of successful kidnap and ransom attacks are now taking place outside the Nigerian EEZ.

On the positive side, the IMB PRC recorded only four incidents in the African continent outside the Gulf of Guinea region in 2020, down from seven in 2019. All four were robbery incidents and took place at the Nacala Anchorage in Mozambique. While no piracy incidents off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden have been reported to the IMB PRC in 2019 and 2020, the agency advises that the Somali pirates continue to possess the capability and capacity to carry out attacks in this region and cautions ship operators and masters against complacency when operating in the Somali basin and wider Indian Ocean.

 

Asia

Asia also experienced an increase in the overall number of piracy and armed robbery incidents at sea in 2020. According to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia Information Sharing Centre (ReCAAP ISC), a total of 97 incidents were reported in Asia in 2020, which is a 17% year-on-year increase compared to 2019.

The majority of incidents in Asia in 2020 were categorized as ‘armed robbery’ with a low severity level involving no physical harm to vessels’ crew. Of the 97 incidents reported, nine occurred in India, five in Bangladesh and 83 in South-East Asian countries. ReCAAP ISC’s 2020 data also confirms the past trend where the majority of incidents, except those reported from the Singapore Strait, occurred to vessels while at anchor/berth.

The following areas of concern have been particularly highlighted in ReCAAP ISC’s 2020 annual report:

  • Sulu-Celebes Sea and eastern Sabah region: No merchant vessels were involved in kidnap and ransom incidents in these waters in 2020. However, an incident in January 2020 involving the abduction of crew from a fishing trawler in Malaysian waters off Eastern Sabah demonstrates that kidnap for ransom remains a serious threat in this area.
  • Philippines: There has been an increase in the number of robbery incidents at ports/anchorages in the Philippines in 2020, see also our Alert of 20 September 2020. 13 incidents were reported in 2020, up from seven in 2019, of which nine occurred at Manila Anchorage, three at Batangas Anchorage and one at General Santos Harbour Anchorage. In two of the incidents at Batangas Anchorage, crews reported to have been threatened by robbers carrying knives.
  • Singapore Strait: The increase in robberies in the Singapore Strait continued into 2021. A total of 34 incidents were recorded in the Singapore Strait in 2020, compared to 31 in 2019. However, unlike 2019, when there was a more even split between incidents occurring in the Strait’s westbound and eastbound lanes, close to 90% of the incidents recorded in 2020 occurred in the eastbound lane. The majority of these also involved bigger vessels, mostly bulk carriers and tankers, rather than tugs and barges. To provide insight into the incidents in the Singapore Strait, the modus operandi of the perpetrators and recommendations to the industry, ReCAAP ISC issued four Incident Alerts in 2020.

 

South and Central America and Caribbean waters

With a total of 30 piracy and armed robbery incidents recorded in the South and Central America and the Caribbean waters in 2020, the IMB PRC’s five-year statistics shows no sign of improvement for this region. The beginning of 2020 came with a warning about a maritime threat in the Southern Gulf of Mexico. The nature of the threat was a series of four piracy incidents that took place between 4 April and 15 April 2020, all four incidents involved attacks on offshore support vessels and some involved crew injuries and theft. While the IMB PRC has recorded no additional incidents in the Gulf of Mexico in 2020, various media reports have described a steep increase in the number of attacks on maritime oil infrastructure in Mexico since 2016 - some even refer to an average of 16 attacks a month between January and September 2019. Although these numbers are unconfirmed, they do suggest that there could be a significant degree of under-reporting of incidents in the Gulf of Mexico. Our Alert of 22 April 2019 has the details.

The Callao Anchorage in Peru has been regarded as a robbery hotspot for many years and 2020 was no different with eight incidents recorded, two less than in 2019. However, an alarming new trend is the increase in the number of robbery incidents in Brazil near Macapá City at the mouth of the Amazon River. Seven incidents were reported from this area in 2020, a trend that has continued into January 2021.

Vessels operating in South and Central America and Caribbean waters are reminded to stay vigilant and maintain strict anti-piracy watch and measures, especially while at anchor.