ICC International Maritime Bureau (IMB) figures show a rise in piracy and armed robbery on the world’s seas in the first 9 months of 2020. The number of kidnappings reported in the Gulf of Guinea has increased by 40 per cent, compared with the same period in 2019.

IMB’s latest global piracy report details 132 attacks since the start of 2020, up from 119 incidents in the same period last year. Of the 85 seafarers kidnapped from their vessels and held for ransom, 80 were taken in the Gulf of Guinea. The latter concerns 14 attacks off Nigeria, Benin, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Ghana. Pirates armed with guns and knives are abducting bigger groups of seafarers at further distances off the West African coast.

In the first 9 months of 2020, seafarers reported 134 cases of assault, injury and threats, including 85 crew members being kidnapped and 31 held hostage on board their ships. A total of 112 vessels were boarded and 6 were fired upon, while 12 reported attempted attacks. 2 fishing vessels were hijacked, both in the Gulf of Guinea.

‘Crews are facing exceptional pressures due to Covid-19, and the risk of violent piracy or armed robbery is an extra stress,’ says Michael Howlett, Director of IMB, whose Piracy Reporting Centre (IMB PRC) has responded to reports and shared data since 1991. ‘While IMB liaises with authorities swiftly in case of a pirate attack, we encourage all coastal states and regional cooperations to take responsibility for ensuring maritime security within their EEZ to achieve safer seas and secure trade.’

Gulf of Guinea the world’s piracy hotspot

With approximately 95 per cent of global kidnappings reported from within Gulf of Guinea waters, IMB warns that pirate gangs in the area are ‘well organised and targeting all vessel types over a wide range’.

The furthest attack from shore also involved the most crew kidnapped from a single vessel in 2020. On 17 July, 8 pirates armed with machine guns boarded a product tanker underway around 196 nautical miles southwest of Bayelsa, Nigeria. They held all 19 crew members hostage, stole ship’s documents and valuable items, and escaped with 13 kidnapped crew. The tanker was left drifting with limited and unqualified navigational and engine crew onboard. A nearby merchant vessel later helped the tanker to sail to a safe port.

Regional Authorities were notified and the 13 kidnapped crew members were released safely 1 month later.

A more recent example was on 8 September, when armed pirates attacked a refrigerated cargo ship underway around 33 nm south-southwest of Lagos, Nigeria. 2 crew members were kidnapped, but the rest of the crew managed to retreat into the citadel – one of the industry’s recommended best practices endorsed by IMB. A Nigerian naval team was dispatched, who boarded, conducted a search, and then escorted the ship to a safe anchorage for investigations.

Singapore Straits and Indonesia

The piracy centre recorded 15 attacks to ships underway in the Singapore Straits. While most are considered low level crimes, 2 crew were threatened, 1 injured and another taken hostage, indicating a continued risk to the crew. Knives were reported in at least 10 of the incidents.

There has been a sharp quarterly decrease in the number of incidents within the Indonesian archipelagic, with 4 reported in Q3, down from 14 in Q2. These are viewed as low level opportunistic thefts with most reported on anchored vessels.

Caribbean, Central and South America

All vessel types in in the Caribbean, Central and South America – including Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, Mexico and Peru are being targeted at anchor as well as underway, and during river passages under pilotage. On 26 September, a container vessel was boarded by armed perpetrators during its river passage at Guayaquil. The attackers fired their weapons towards the accommodation and bridge, then opened containers and stole the contents before leaving.

However, as many more cases go unreported, IMB is urging all ship masters and operators to inform, in a timely manner, the 24-hour IMB Piracy Reporting Centre of any attacks to their vessels or crew.

Somali piracy remains under control

No incidents of piracy have been reported around Somalia since 2018. In August 2020, pirates freed the last 3 of the thousands of hostages who have been held captive in the region over the years since ship hijackings peaked in 2011.

Despite this, as Somali pirates are still capable of carrying out further attacks, IMB urges vessels to continue implementing the industry’s best management practices (BMP5), and encourages the continued, stabilising presence of navies in the region.