Is Maritime Piracy Back from the Dead?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
After years of steadily declining cases of hijacking, piracy is on the rise and the coronavirus could make it worse.
By Eromo Egbejule
Over the past few months, with fewer vessels crisscrossing the seas, aquatic animals have reveled in their habitat. Endangered humpback dolphins have been spotted in Abu Dhabi and other varieties off the coast of Lagos. But another comeback is also on the horizon — a sensational return of pirates.
For years, piracy attacks on major shipping routes have been on a decline. Even though the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) in 2019 described the Gulf of Guinea as “one of the most dangerous shipping routes in the world,” overall, incidents of maritime piracy last year were the lowest since 1994.
Now that’s changing.
[The pandemic is likely to] worsen conditions that do lead to maritime piracy, such as poverty and joblessness.
Brandon Prins, political scientist, University of Tennessee-Knoxville
The first three months of 2020 witnessed a 24 percent increase in maritime piracy and armed robbery compared to last year, according to the IMB. The Gulf of Guinea, which surrounds most of West and Central Africa, remains a hot spot. In the Americas, there has been a series of recent attacks against oil platforms and ships in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche. A direct causal relationship between the coronavirus crisis and piracy is yet to be established. But as governments prioritize public health over security, the pandemic is likely to “worsen conditions that do lead to maritime piracy, such as poverty and joblessness,” says Brandon Prins, a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
“A lack of viable economic opportunities” binds places where piracy is observed, says Maisie Pigeon, Africa program manager for One Earth Future’s Stable Seas program. In the Gulf of Guinea, the dominant oil and gas industries have been hit badly by the crisis. “You could certainly fathom a world in which more people are driven to participation in illicit activities like piracy and armed robbery to support themselves,” says Pigeon.
The “distraction” of the pandemic has also left poor coastal countries vulnerable to threats on the open seas, as they focus more of their limited resources on fighting COVID-19 inland, leaving their maritime borders more porous than before.
Earlier this year, a standoff between Russia and Saudi Arabia forced oil prices to tank below zero for the first time in history, and producers were forced to pay to sell their oil as storage space became expensive. Many barges were stuck at sea and became easy prey for pirates.
It’s the same with ships out at sea with passengers who’ve tested positive for the virus. In early May, more than three dozen cruise ships were in quarantine at sea. With travel restrictions hampering the replacement of medical personnel or augmentation of naval forces for a coordinated security response, these ships too are vulnerable.
Piracy attacks are expected to increase as the year continues, says Prins. It’s yet another of the unexpected but multifaceted ways in which the pandemic is turning the world upside down.
- Eromo Egbejule