This week, much of our attention has been riveted by the spectacle of hijacking on the high seas. All the drama of a Hollywood swashbuckler was brought to us every ten minutes or so, and we have been transfixed by the anachronism of piracy in the 21st Century.
At this very moment, the lifeboat containing several pirates and their hostage, Captain Phillips of the Maersk Alabama, is bobbing like a cork several hundred miles off the coast of Somalia. The small vessel is under the constant surveillance of the US Navy---including a plethora of aircraft and the USS Bainbridge, a nuclear-powered guided missile destroyer---while the cargo ship that was the object of the hijacking is en route to Mombasa, its original destination, with the remainder of the crew and an armed party of American sailors.
Piracy has become more than an annoyance, as shipping companies have forked over millions of dollars in ransom. Maritime insurance rates are skyrocketing, and countries like the United States, China and Russia have had to divert naval power to escort commercial vessels and respond, however inadequately, to hijacking.
Although some of the pirates are well organized and have links to terrorist organizations, many others are merely pick-up squads of fishermen looking for an easy way to make a very large amount of money. It doesn't matter who they are, however; they are successful almost all the time. It is not surprising, therefore, that piracy has become more frequent and widespread. Currently, pirates have under their control more than a dozen ships and are in negotiations that will net them many millions of dollars.
In this regard, there are two issues that come to mind.
Pirates often come to the area in mother ships, which then disgorge smaller vessels that speed to the target ship. The pirates are usually armed with small arms, automatic weapons and rocket launchers, but these are not weapons that can physically threaten the much larger vessels that are the their targets. Furthermore, the decks of the merchant vessels are dozens of feet above the waterline, requiring the pirates to board using grappling hooks and ladders. So, how can the pirates board and overwhelm a much larger vessel? It would appear that the crew permits them to do it, and it seems that the shipping companies' policy is that the crew is to acquiesce to demands to relinquish their ships.
Second, why do nations permit pirates to ravage their merchant fleets? One answer is that countries have not been acting in concert to thwart piracy and are insufficiently aggressive in patrolling the region and boarding suspect vessels. With international agreement, shipping lanes should be designated as exclusion zones such that any unregistered vessel in the zone would be subject to capture or destruction.
How the current situation will end is difficult to say, but it can't last forever. There is water and food aboard the lifeboat, and there are reportedly negotiations underway, aimed at getting the pirates to release Captain Phillips. But the pirates have the upper hand, and others will continue to threaten shipping lanes until maritime nations band together and collectively become more vigilant---and perhaps more ruthless---than they are now.