Pirate attacks have increased by 40 per cent this year with more than 80 kidnappings at sea.
The pandemic is blamed for the rise after tankers were forced to drop anchor offshore, unable to dock at ports due to restrictions that various countries put in place, and then vulnerable to take over by boarding parties.
The International Maritime Bureau has received notice of 159 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in 2020, with a large proportion of those relating to incidents in the Gulf of Guinea.
The issue has caught the attention of policy makers. In January, the EU is launching a £1.3 million ($1.73m) maritime security programme to train personnel to patrol international waters to address the rising number of incidents.
Earlier this year, the UAE-managed tanker Pyxis Theta was targeted 39 kilometres off Cotonou, on the south coast of Benin in west Africa. Five pirates approached the vessel in a speedboat and the marauders escaped after a high-sea chase.
“The accommodation was locked down and all non-essential crew mustered in the citadel,” the incident report said. “Master increased speed and commenced evasive manoeuvres, resulting in the persons aborting the approach and moving away. The tanker and crew safe.”
Other crews were less fortunate, especially in the waters west of Africa where pirates are taking sailors hostage. "Approximately 95 per cent of global crew kidnappings have taken place in the Gulf of Guinea, with 81 crew confirmed as kidnapped in 15 separate incidents," IMB's director Michael Howlett told The National. "The attacks are aimed at all types of vessels and occurring at greater distances from the shore."
The Gulf of Guinea is a 2.3 million square kilometre area bordering more than a dozen countries, and the number of kidnappings within its waters is up sharply from 2019, the IMB said.
Pirates armed with guns and knives attack everything from oil platforms to fishing vessels and refrigerated cargo ships.
In one attack, 176km from the coast, the furthest offshore attack reported off West Africa, pirates took 13 crew members hostage, which the IMB said illustrated “how well-organised and far-reaching” the assailants are.
“Crews are facing exceptional pressures due to Covid-19 and the risk of violent piracy or armed robbery is an extra stress,” said Mr Howlett. “While IMB liaises with authorities swiftly in case of a pirate attack, we encourage all coastal states and regional co-operations to take responsibility for ensuring maritime security within their exclusive economic zone to achieve safer seas and secure trade.”
Earlier this month, Italian armed forces on the Navy ship Martinengo, which was patrolling in the region, took part in two rescues after pirate attacks. In November, Nigerian pirates demanded a $1m ransom in exchange for the release of eight hostages from the Milano 1 cargo ship.
The vessel, registered in St Kitts but operated by a Lebanese firm, was contracted by a Nigerian company to transport glass between Nigeria and Cameroon. The ship was released but only two crew members were freed. Three Lebanese, one of them the captain, and two Egyptians were among the hostages.
In September, armed pirates attacked a refrigerated cargo ship off Lagos, Nigeria, and kidnapped two crew members. The rest of the crew locked themselves inside the citadel and the vessel was discovered floating adrift by a Nigerian naval team.
Eight pirates armed with machine guns boarded a tanker in July off Bayelsa, Nigeria.
They held all 19 crew members hostage and stole the ship’s documents and other valuable items before escaping.
Experts say the bulk of the attackers come from Nigeria’s Niger Delta, which produces most of the petroleum in the country, and is Africa’s largest oil exporter.
Last year saw a 25-year low in the number of piracy and armed robbery attacks. The IMB said the increase in attacks is in part because of the pandemic, with ships stranded due to quarantine rules.
Prof Brandon Prins of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville said the fallout from the pandemic could see piracy increase.
“My fear has always been that Covid-19 would reduce global trade, which lowers growth, increases poverty and joblessness and then leads to more sea piracy,” he told Global Risk Insight.
“There is certainly a concern that, with trade going down, there will be fewer sailors on board ships and therefore fewer crew monitoring for potential pirates or armed robbers.”
In 2019, Nigeria enacted a standalone law against piracy, and in August, a court in the oil centre of Port Harcourt made the first convictions under the new legislation.