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The issue of modern piracy recently came back into the spotlight with the release of starring Tom Hanks. The nail-biting film depicts the 2009 Somali pirate attack on the cargo ship Maersk Alabama and the harrowing rescue of the captain by the U.S. Navy. This true story is just one example of the dangerous piracy that currently menaces the industry.

The seas between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula are one of the hottest spots for piracy today. Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro stated, “Somali pirates now operate in a total sea space of approximately 2.5 million square nautical miles.” Other dangerous areas for piracy around the globe include the archipelagos of Indonesia, the Strait of Malacca, the South China Sea, the western coast of central Africa and the northern coast of South America.

The frequency and violence of pirate attacks greatly increased in the first decade of the 21st century. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, in 2003 ship owners reported 445 attacks, in which 92 seafarers were killed or reported missing and 359 were assaulted and taken hostage. Between 2002 and 2003 the number of people taken hostage and killed nearly doubled. The scary part is these numbers are likely on the low side since many shipping companies do not report pirate attacks for fear of long, expensive inquiries and increased insurance costs.

These numbers have decreased slightly in recent years due to a number of new security measures. First, shipping companies began hiring private security forces to protect valuable cargo. In Captain Phillips, it was illegal for the crew to have any weapons on board. Today many companies hire armed guards with military experience to create a convoy for freighters in dangerous routes. Also, the International Maritime Organization now requires all ships over 300 tons and all passenger ships of any size to be fitted with an Automatic Identification System, which is a satellite tracking system that can alert maritime authorities if a ship exhibits strange behavior or deviates from its route.

Ships are also installing defensive technology to keep pirates from boarding…some of which is downright medieval. A Japanese company developed an “Anti-Piracy Curtain” that drops a series of hoses off the vessel. Sea water is forced through the nozzles with incredible force, spinning the powerful jets of water in unpredictable patterns. Sophisticated spit hot water with eye-irritating chemicals at unwanted intruders. Other methods to deter unwanted passengers include high-pitched sonic waves, slippery foam, dazzle guns (a green laser that temporarily blinds an opponent), razor wire and electric fencing.

The rise of piracy is due to many factors including the decreased size of naval fleets since the Cold War, globalization increasing international shipping trade, sophisticated ships carrying more cargo with less crew and finally rising levels of poverty in areas around major shipping channels.

Worldwide losses from piracy are estimated at $16 billion each year. The average ransom is about $5 million per ship. Unfortunately, as consumers we are the real losers. We pay more for goods because shipping companies have to increase costs to cover additional security, increasing ship speed through dangerous waters or rerouting to avoid them altogether and paying much higher insurance premiums. Learn more about what INTERPOL is doing to reduce piracy and protect international shipping across the world’s oceans.