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“Piracy 2021: Back in 2009?” BCA Online BSc Ship Management Clinic, 19/03/21

Unfortunately, it is a horrible feeling of déjà vu when reading about all the recent distressing piracy incidents taking place on merchant vessels off West Africa. As if our seafarers did not have enough to cope with during this troubling pandemic crisis, enduring the uncertainty of when and where they will be able to safely sign off and be relieved for their long-awaited shore leave, now there is the added risk of not only being stranded on board but also literally being taken hostage!

Piracy was the topical subject of this week's online Ship Management Clinic for the BSc students at BCA which I had the pleasure to moderate with an excellent guest case-study presented by Mr Dimitrios Koukoulas, Managing Director of TMS Dry Ltd, TMS Bulkers Ltd and TMS Offshore Services Ltd.

The enthralling ordeal of the 21 crew members of the panama bulk carrier “Shaldanha”, having been held kidnap for ransom in February 2009 by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden and their eventual release after 63 days of detention was described by Mr Koukoulas including actual audio and video clips of the lengthy negotiations and eventual ransom drop. The piracy incident thankfully had a successful outcome in terms of the company’s overriding goal for the health & safety of all the crew being maintained throughout and this reflected the calm and calculated approach taken by the vessel’s managers over an extremely stressful two-month period which had a heavy toll on all the people involved. “This case was and still is today by far the most challenging time in my 37-year career in the shipping industry”, remarked Koukoulas.

Screenshot of BSc Ship Management Clinic (Source: BCA):

Lessons learned from the perspective of the shipping company included several key success factors which were linked to the theory of crisis management during the class:

having clear objectives from the start
maintaining good communication with all parties
strong leadership and negotiating skills.
effective use of resources with specialist support from experts in appropriate disciplines
Emergency Response Team focus by reallocation of day-to-day operational responsibilities to deputy managers.

This online meeting was very current as it was only a few days earlier that BIMCO’s president Sadan Kaptanoglu had called for a multilateral approach in dealing with the escalating piracy situation in the Gulf of Guinea and drawing parallels with the Gulf of Aden series of incidents more than 12 years ago which was eventually diffused successfully with concerted efforts by industry bodies, ship owner associations and governments.

Indeed, at the time of writing, a piracy incident encompassing many common elements with the “SHALDANHA” is ongoing involving the “DAVIDE B”, a chemical tanker which was attacked off the Gulf of Guinea. The difference being that 14 seafarers were kidnapped and actually taken off the Davide B (with 6 crew members left safe on board) and are being held captive since the 11th of March.

IMB Piracy & Armed Robbery Map 2021 figures show that this year the number of piracy incidents in the area are already in double digits with a series of high-profile attacks having taken place as depicted in the live map screenshot below:

(Source: https://icc-ccs.org/piracy-reporting-centre/live-piracy-map, last accessed 20/03/21)

2020 full year figures had also shown a worrying increasing trend with more than 100 piracy incidents off West Africa.

In fact, the ICC International Maritime Bureau (IMB) issued a news release last week “urging ships and crew transiting the Gulf of Guinea to remain alert and not let their guard down” in view of the “DAVIDE B” attack.

So why is it that we are now witnessing the “Piracy sequel” in the maritime industry after a prolonged period of relative tranquility? Could it be another negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic? And what is the solution?

Kaptanoglu correctly states that governments and international shipping industry bodies need to work together and already this week Denmark announced they are sending aid to the Gulf of Guinea High-Risk Area (HRA) in the form of a naval ship to help support and escort the passages of commercial vessels through that route, although this will not be deployed until November 2021.

However, this may not be enough if a systematic approach to law enforcement and coordinated response is not also adopted. This should include the key learning from the initial piracy surge in 2009-10 where it was recognized that there was a limit to what shipping companies and their managed vessels could do in practice to prepare and respond to piracy risks (with implementation of the guidelines in Best Management Practices, BMP, to help ships plan their voyage and detect, avoid, deter, delay and report attacks, for example) and real progress was achieved only with a concentrated multinational effort.

(Source: TMS Bulkers)

During the online BCA class, Mr Koukoulas also outlined the legal context of the piracy issue with specific reference to the UNCLOS (United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea) provisions for anti-piracy - yet it only serves as a framework.

It remains to be seen whether this will be effectively implemented at a regional and global governmental level during the current crisis with a robust package of measures aimed at prevention rather than just response to ensure the safety of our seafarers in these already extremely difficult conditions.  

Apostolos Poulovassilis

Director, BCA