I was re-watching the film Captain Phillips the other day, in which Tom Hanks plays the hero captain of a container ship, Maersk Alabama, that is hijacked off the coast of Somalia. It is based on the real hijacking of the vessel in 2009. The film came out in 2013 and although not that long ago it reminded me that the spate of vessel pirate hijackings in that area of the Indian Ocean and elsewhere has somewhat disappeared from the news.
That absence from public view might give the impression that it is no longer a problem. And it is indeed true that the number of piracy incidents in that region and globally has thankfully declined since that period when hijackings and hostage-taking seemed to be almost a daily occurrence. There were intense debates as to whether ransoms demanded by pirates should be paid to free the captured seafarers.
Even though the general public may have forgotten such crimes, quickly turning to other matters nearer home, piracy and other forms of attacks on ships and seafarers have far from disappeared. Seafarers worldwide remain highly vulnerable to such attacks, whether in port, in coastal waters or on the high seas. The plight of those falling victim to these crimes, who are simply going about their business earning a legitimate and hard-earned living, should not be forgotten. It should also be remembered that some of the Somali pirates were also seafarers, mostly fishermen, driven to such criminal action by their own dire circumstances and pressure from others, though that is no excuse.
Although the number of reported piracy and armed robbery worldwide in 2017 was, at 180, the lowest since 1995, according to International Maritime Bureau statistics, that still means that thousands of seafarers from a wide variety of nationalities were subject to sometimes violent attacks.
Among those 180 attacks in 2017, 136 vessels were boarded, while 22 attempted attacks failed. In addition, 16 vessels were fired upon and six vessels were hijacked. These attacks caused major trauma for crew members with three seafarers being killed, 91 were taken hostage in 15 separate incidents and 75 kidnapped from vessels in 13 separate events.
While the overall number of piracy and armed robbery attacks fell in 2017, in some parts of the world there was a worrying increase. In Asia attacks increased to 101, from 85 in 2016. Most of them involved armed robbery on vessels while in port and in anchorages.
The encouraging recent decline in the total number of incidents worldwide should not obscure the fact that piracy and other criminal actions aimed at ships is just another of the risks that seafarers face every day.
The drama of Captain Phillips may be entertaining viewing in the comfort of our own homes, but it should also remind us that we cannot be complacent about attacks on ships and seafarers and must support those unfortunate enough to fall victim and back necessary actions to prevent such attacks in the future.