Piracy and armed robbery at sea
According to the ICC International Maritime Bureau's (IMB) annual piracy report (2022), global piracy has hit a 30-year low and is declining for the second year in a row.
The ICC IMB's annual report shows a 13% drop in overall attacks in 2022 compared to 2021, where the decline has been attributed primarily to the decrease in activity in the Gulf of Guinea. The report recorded a total of 115 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in 2022 – compared to 132 in 2021 – with half of them occurring in Southeast Asian waters, particularly in the Singapore Straits, where incidents continue to rise and have reached a seven-year high in 2022.
A staggering 95% of the reported incidents involved successful boarding of the vessels by perpetrators. In most cases, vessels were either anchored or steamed when boarded, with all incidents having occurred during hours of darkness.
Gulf of Guinea
Positive progress remains in the Gulf of Guinea, where reported incidents went from 82 in 2018 to 84 in 2020, 35 in 2021 and then down to 19 in 2022. However, the IMB stated that sustained efforts are needed to ensure the continued safety of seafarers in the Gulf of Guinea region, which remains dangerous as evidenced by two incidents in the last quarter of 2022 involving the hijacking of two vessels, with 29 crew held hostage.
On the flipside, the ICC International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre (IMB PRC) has commented that there is a degree of under-reporting and late reporting of piracy and armed robbery incidents in the Gulf of Guinea and other waters. Masters are advised to report all incidents as early as possible, so that local authorities can identify, investigate, and apprehend the perpetrators in a timely fashion.
As reported in IMB's Q1 2023 report, activity continues to decrease in the Gulf of Guinea with just five incidents reported in Q1 2023, compared to eight in 2022. Despite this, the continued need for vigilance and swift naval responses remains key. Incidents such as the hijacking of a product tanker on 28 March, 140nm WSW of Pointe Noire, where the vessel lost communications for five days with six crew reported as kidnapped and subsequently located by a French naval asset, highlights this importance. Similarly, MDAT-GoG reported the incident involving the Singapore-flagged chemical tanker, which was hijacked on 10 April, 300nm south of Abidjan and was recovered by a Côte d'Ivoire Navy patrol vessel five days later.
As of 1 January 2023, the Indian Ocean High Risk Area (HRA) was removed, reflecting a significantly improved piracy situation in the region, largely due to concerted counter-piracy efforts by various regional and international stakeholders. This is a testament to nearly 15 years of collaborative efforts resulting in no piracy attacks against merchant ships off Somalia since 2018.
However, the IMB PRC warns that Somali pirates retain the capability and capacity to carry out attacks in the Gulf of Aden region and urges masters to remain vigilant - the Voluntary Reporting Area (VRA) administered by UKMTO remains unchanged where ships entering the VRA are encouraged to report to the UKMTO and register with the Maritime Security Centre for the Horn of Africa (MSCHOA) in accordance with industry Best Management Practices (BMP).
The ReCAAP ISC Annual Report (2022) mentioned that the number of recorded incidents in the Singapore Strait has increased by 2% in the total number of incidents (55 incidents reported in Singapore Straits out of 84 incidents reported in Asia) compared to the year 2021, which showcases an increasing trend year on year.
The majority of the incidents occurred at night in the eastbound lane of the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) in the Straits and where larger ships such as bulk carriers and tankers are the most frequently targeted ship type.
The incidents were reported to largely be petty thefts involving minor to no physical injuries to crews – 58% of the incidents had no information on whether the perpetrators carried weapons (32 incidents) and the remaining 23 incidents included one event where perpetrators carried a pistol; 15 where they carried knives, machetes, and other weapons; 2 where they carried weapon-like objects, and 5 where the perpetrators were not armed.
The ReCAAP ISC observed that the perpetrators involved in the incidents in the Straits are opportunistic in nature and have no intention to harm the crew. Their main objective is to steal items from ships and escape without being noticed by the crew.
For Q1 2023, the IMB also noted that almost 30% of incidents reported for the South-East Asian region occurred in the Singapore Straits, with 18 recorded cases. The threat of violence remains a worrisome possibility, with knives sighted and reported in two of the incidents.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report 2022, the continued growth in drug production and trafficking remains a concern. The report states that cocaine manufacturing was at a record high in 2020, growing 11 percent from 2019 to 1,982 tons. Cocaine seizures also increased, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, to a record 1,424 tons in 2020, with almost 90% trafficked through containers and/or by sea. All three of South America's major cocaine-producing nations also saw elevated seizure figures in 2022 which was primarily propelled by record or near-record rates of drug production.
Ports participating in the Container Control Programme (CCP) of the UNODC which aims to improve port security, seized 271 tons of cocaine in 2022, a full 100 tons more than 2021.
The most common modus operandi for smuggling drugs in containers is the "rip-on/rip-off" method, whereby the cocaine is loaded into the cargo unit at the port of departure and is recovered at the port of destination without the knowledge or cooperation of the shipper, consignee, or carrier. It requires corruption of hauliers or port workers at both ends and involves tampering with the original seal, which is usually replaced or repaired to disguise obvious violation.
There is also a noticeable rise in the number of cases involving bulk carriers sailing from grain ports with cocaine buried in the bulk cargo, hidden in void spaces, or secured to the vessel's hull.
Mexico's army and navy reportedly confiscated 41.8 tons of cocaine in 2022 which represents more than double that of the 15.1 tons seized in 2021. This marked the largest proportional increase in seizures by any major transit country which has been attributed partly due to a renewed focus on port security in Mexican ports. In mid-2021, Mexico had redesignated port controls to the navy as an outcome of allegations of corruption in the previous system. Subsequently, there is speculation that Mexico is tightening controls due to pressure from the United States.
Skuld's correspondents in Mexico (P&I Services Mexico) recently published an alert informing that as of February 2023, there has been a sharp increase in narcotics-related incidents in Mexican east coast ports. These incidents are largely affecting bulk carriers and tanker vessels. The current modus operandi appears to be insertions in the sea chests, perhaps whilst the vessels are at anchorage, but the source of the narcotics insertion is currently unknown. Affected vessels are calling at varied ports before Mexico - not the usual LatAm trade, such as Colombian ports.
Increased watches while at Mexican anchorage are highly recommended and should be documented in detail in the vessel's logs. All other additional security measures should also be carefully documented and heightened.
Brazil reportedly seized a total of 96 tons of cocaine nationwide in 2022, which despairingly showed little to no improvement from the prior years. While most seizures originated from Port of Santos, seizures have been reported to also take place in ports such as Paranagua and Salvador which are smaller ports. More recently, a total of 2.6 tons of illegal narcotics have been seized in Port of Santos within Q1 2023, which further cements concerns for the continued problem.
Skuld's correspondents in Brazil (Brazil P&I) published a circular in March 2023, highlighting that more than 16 tons of drugs were seized in Port of Santos in 2022. According to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Santos is considered one of the main distribution points for cocaine, by sea, in the world. Located on the coast of São Paulo, the port appears on a list of four locations that stand out in the global maritime drug trade, along with Buenaventura and Cartagena in Colombia, and Guayaquil, in Ecuador. In many cases, drugs were found inside containers, in holds, in ship compartments or attached to hulls, bows, rudder stock, and other spaces on vessels.
In recent years, according to the Centre of Excellence for Illicit Drug Supply Reduction (CoE Brazil), drug trafficking organizations have diversified the routes and ports used for trafficking cocaine through and out of Brazil beyond the long-standing use of large ports, seeking to exploit smaller ports on the north-eastern and the southern coast of Brazil, where there is less capacity for inspection.
More information concerning preventive measures can be found in the attached circular.
Colombia remains to be the world's top cocaine producer as the country continues to grow in record levels of coca cultivation and cocaine production. This was reflected in the 2022 seizures – authorities seized 352 tons of cocaine hydrochloride and a further 318 tons outside Colombian territory. This amounts to a record total of 671 tons.
Skuld's correspondents in Colombia (A&A Multiprime) also published a report in March 2023, concerning drug smuggling in Colombia.
The report highlights that Colombia continues to be the largest producer of coca bushes in the world, accounting for an estimated 61% of global production. Referring to the World Drug Report 2022 by the UNODC, despite a relevant 9% decrease in productive areas under coca bush cultivation three years ago, Colombian coca crops hit historic levels in 2021, reversing a three-year trend.
Colombian authorities also broke their historical record of cocaine seizures for the second consecutive year, with 671 tons confiscated. Additionally, it was reported that in 2022, a total of 87.3 tons of cocaine base paste and 484 tons of marijuana were confiscated in the country.
The attached report contains further information concerning the trafficking strategies adopted, as well as preventive measures useful for Members.
Recommendations to stay vigilant
It is apparent that the level of threat, opportunity, and modus operandi of criminals to perform a maritime crime differs from region to region.
- Prior to entering any high risk prone area or port/anchorage, obtain updated information from local sources and security experts
- Ensure that the Ships' Security Plan (SSP) is regularly reviewed and updated
- Specific voyage risk assessments and regular briefing and/or training of the crew should be undertaken
- Tune-in to advisories and navigational broadcasts announced by the authorities
- Maximise vigilance, lookouts for suspicious small boats and increase watch keeping – particularly for crew on board tug boats towing barges during daylight, and for crew on board bigger ships during night time
- Keep the CCTV and other devices including communication equipment operational to alert the ship crew and record the movement of perpetrators
- Rounds of the ship's compartment be taken and locked prior to entering the area of concern and recorded in the log book. Ensure that all doors and hatches having direct access to the bridge, accommodation, store rooms, steering gear compartment and engine room are closed/properly secured
- Maintain communication with your operators by providing periodic updates and establish daily communication checks
- Report all incidents, suspicious activities and presence of suspicious small boats in the vicinity to the nearest reporting centres, coastal State and flag State
- Sound alarm when suspicious boats are sighted loitering in the vicinity of the ship or suspicious individuals are sighted on board the ship or barge
- Relevant preventive measures must be adopted, following available industry guidance and best management practices (BMP) to deter perpetrators and/or traffickers