Professor has done the maths on piracy at sea

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am


It was only a few years ago that armed pirates hijacked a cargo ship just outside Hong Kong waters and cracked open the hold, only to find it full of chicken legs.

The pirates, who apparently had different taste in food, left the ship without hurting anyone on board.

Recalling the incident, Yip Tsz-leung, an assistant professor in Polytechnic University's logistics and maritime studies department, said: 'Many people don't know it, but the threat of piracy is a major concern for Hong Kong vessels, which are numerous and ubiquitous.

'It's lucky that [the] Chinese crew was left unscathed,' he said.

'Coming across piracy on the sea is one of those events people don't believe will happen to them, until it actually does,' he said. 'And it is happening more and more.'

The issue is global: the European Union Naval Force in Somalia estimates that 213 hostages are currently being held by pirates, with reports saying the level of violence and the technology used are rising.

That prompted Yip, whose father was a seafarer, to scientifically study all incidences of maritime piracy during the last decade. With his former student Wong Mei-chi, Yip developed statistical models to help shipowners predict whether a particular vessel, with a specific cargo, shipping in given waters is likely to be a target for piracy, and how much violence might be used.

Their models find that bulk carriers, general cargo ships, container ships, and chemical tankers are most likely to be targeted, and indeed, past records show such vessels account for more than two-thirds of all ship attacks between 2002 and 2009.

They are most prone to attacks by largely untrained pirates with simple weapons when the vessels are in South Asia around the Malacca Straits, and in Africa in the notorious Gulf of Aden.

The paper shows larger vessels are safer against pirate attacks but, if attacked successfully, the violence tends to be greater.

Pirates almost always look for money and valuable goods only, and they do not target specific flags.

In fact, about 4 per cent of vessels fly the Hong Kong flag -the eighth-most-used worldwide - but many who use it are not from the city.

'Many Chinese people fly Hong Kong flags, because to many people, Hong Kong is something that represents better management, and thus would be better equipped to fight against pirates,' Yip said.

'It's usual for a ship to fly a flag that does not represent their country of origin. The US, for instance, would hide their flag when in Middle Eastern waters,' he said.

The study analysed data from the International Maritime Bureau of the International Chamber of Commerce to assess the types of criminal action that took place.

It is the first attempt to empirically investigate piracy attacks.

The paper came out in the latest issue of the International Journal of Shipping and Transport Logistics, and recently won an award.

Yip suggests avoiding certain routes, and using armed guards on merchant vessels.

'The study provides shipping companies, policymakers and other stakeholders with the necessary information to quantify the risk of piracy and the degree of violence, and so put in place measures to reduce risk,' he said.

It also shows that current measures taken by most ships against such attacks do nothing to stave off violence.

He thinks a better-planned maritime policy and worldwide legislation are necessary for the development of maritime transport.

There were more than 2,600 attacks during the time covered by the study. About 480 hostages were taken, and 130 people were kidnapped and 46 killed.

Many of those released reported abuse including beatings, removal of fingernails and dumping in the sea.

The threat of piracy is a major concern for Hong Kong maritime industry groups, ship owners, and ship operators.

As recently as June 2010 in the Gulf of Aden, the Marine Department reported an unsuccessful attack on a Hong Kong-flagged chemical tanker.

A suspicious fishing vessel approached a Hong Kong container ship in March of last year in the Arabian Sea, not far off the coast of India. The helmsman manoeuvred and increased the ship's speed to lose the suspicious boat.

A better policy against piracy is especially needed in this day and age, when pirates are not content with just floating around in their fishing boats, looking for victims.

They run sophisticated operations using the latest hi-tech equipment such as satellite phones and global positioning systems.

Pirates that operate in the Gulf of Aden are typically heavily armed, with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s.

'Some of them are said to receive support from states,' Yip said.

They use speedboats with very powerful outboard motors to approach their target. Sometimes the speedboats are launched from much larger 'mother ships' on the high seas, and pirates have even managed to seize enormous oil tankers.

With warships patrolling along the Somali coast, the pirates have begun operating further away and have staged some attacks closer to India than Somalia.

To actually hijack ships, pirates first use grappling hooks and irons and climb aboard using ropes and ladders. Pirates have also on occasion fired at ships to scare crews into stopping, so it is easier for them to board the vessel.

The number of prisoners taken by pirates fell to 555, at a minimum, last year from 645 in 2010, a report by the US-based One Earth Future Foundation and International Maritime Bureau said.