Sea Piracy Essay

Crime in the form of sea piracy is on the rise in the 21st century. A steady flow of reports in commercial journals and newspapers has reflected the increasing incidents of piracy that are burdening merchant fleets and their corporations and threatening sea resources and ecologies. Estimates of losses to piracy and maritime fraud run as high as $16 billion a year. Pirates regularly attack or attempt to board oil tankers, along with a great variety of ships, in the Malacca Strait, in the South China Sea, off the east coast of Brazil, and along the east coast of Africa, especially Somalia. Reports of other attacks include locations on the coasts of India, Bangladesh, West Africa, Haiti, Jamaica, Peru, in the Gulf of Aden, and in the Caribbean. The pirate attacks on the cruise ship Seabourn Spirit off the coast of Somalia in November 2005 and a French luxury yacht in 2008, as well as the Maersk cargo ship in April 2009 are reminders that no type of seagoing vessel is immune to pirates.

There are four common strategies in pirate attacks. The first involves simple theft at sea, whereby pirates board and rob the vessel and its crew, then depart with their loot, much like a typical land robbery. A second approach is to kidnap crew or passengers and hold them for ransom. A third targets the cargo in the ship’s hold. This may involve holding the vessel for some time while the cargo is off-loaded or transferred to another ship. The fourth is to steal the ship itself. Vessels are given new names and flags, then either sold or used to hijack cargo from unsuspecting shippers.

Among critical pirate targets have been the oil and gas tankers that form the lifeline for Japan and other east Asian states, aid vessels carrying grain and supplies in relief missions, and increasingly, cruise and other passenger ships and sailing vessels.

There are a variety of costs to this resurgence of sea crime. First, there is the human toll. Crews are killed, passengers and resort patrons have been raped and robbed, and many people have been injured. In other cases, the crews simply disappear. Second, and at a more mundane level, employees are lost. Businesses have to replace, train, and give experience to new crew members. Third, sea piracy insurance, covering crew for injuries and with compensation for families, is an increasing burden as the number of incidents rises and the abilities of pirates to attack more and larger ships in more diverse settings grow. Insurance is now more often required and the premiums are rising. Fourth, there are losses of both carriers and their cargo. Cargo, including oil, is often taken and sold in black markets that are rampant in the South China Sea region. Everything from toys to television sets to cars to packaged homes can be bought on the black market and in coastal towns in Asia and Africa. Fifth, pirates also attack pleasure boats, killing or kidnapping crew and passengers and discouraging this form of tourism. This has become a particular problem as the pirates have begun to merge with terrorist groups in southeast Asia and the Middle East.

The most critical piracy problems today are the strategic ones. These include the interruption of oil and natural gas supply lines, the disruption of food supplies, and the possible destruction of a major port facility if a hijacked oil tanker were to be exploded by terrorists.



  1. Eric Frécon, The Resurgence of Sea Piracy in Southeast Asia (IRASEC, 2008);
  2. ICC International Maritime Bureau (IMB), (cited March 2009);
  3. William Langewiesche, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime (North Point Press, 2004);
  4. Peter Lehr, Violence at Sea: Piracy in the Age of Global Terrorism (Routledge, 2007);
  5. Gal Luft and Anne Korin, “Terrorism Goes to Sea,” Foreign Affairs (v.83/6, 2004).

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