HK ships urged to join anti-piracy centre
Keith Wallis in Singapore
Shipowners are being urged to register their Hong Kong-flagged ships with an anti-piracy military co-ordinating centre when sailing through the Indian Ocean.
The call comes after military surveys in the past two months found that fewer than 40 per cent of Hong Kong ships passing through the area were registered.
Simon Church, the maritime industry liaison officer with European Union Naval Force Somalia, said navy ships and helicopters would be in a better position to respond to ship attacks in the Indian Ocean if there was a record of vessels' movements.
His comments come amid an escalation in the scale and violence of pirate attacks, with more attempted and actual hijackings close to the west coast of India.
Latest figures from a piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur show there have been 107 attacks by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean and the east coast of Africa this year. Seventeen ships have been hijacked and seven seamen murdered by pirates since January 1.
Church said owners of mainland and Singapore-flagged vessels were also apparently reluctant to register their ships with the naval forces at the Maritime Security Centre (Horn of Africa), known as the MSC-HOA.
Information about each ship and its route would allow naval forces to help track the ships. 'If we don't know where you are, we can't help you,' Church said, speaking on the sidelines of an anti-piracy conference in Singapore.
Asked why he thought owners had not bothered to log their ships, Church offered possible reasons, including the perception that the centre covered only the Gulf of Aden and east coast of Africa, or that the centre was interested only in Western-flagged vessels.
Owners may also feel there was a reduced risk if they were sailing closer to the coast of India or on north-south trade routes rather than towards the west. 'Half the ships transiting around the Indian Ocean are a mystery to us,' he said. Roger Tupper, director of Hong Kong's Marine Department, said: '[It] seems like Simon Church assumes that the significant rates of ships of all flags not reporting to the Maritime Security Centre (HOA) when in the eastern Indian Ocean is because the masters are not aware that MSC-HOA covers those waters.
'He may well be correct in that assumption. However, we will continue to advise HK-flag shipowners to contact the relevant naval centres when in piracy areas.'
Church said shipowners felt they could be protected by the existing naval convoys but these convoys could only provide protection through the Gulf of Aden.
He urged more countries to allow access to long-range identification and tracking data. So far, 42 flag states, including Hong Kong, had signed up to provide data but more than 100, including a core group of 55, had failed to do so.
Separately, Lee Yin-mui, assistant director of research at the Asian government-to-government body ReCAAP Information Sharing Centre, warned of a likely increase in armed robbery and piracy attacks in the South China Sea from this month.
Speaking at the same conference, she said changing weather conditions meant pirate attacks were more common in the main east-west transit route in the southern part of the South China Sea from April to June and August to September.
She urged co-operation between military and coastguard forces from states bordering the area to combat a rise in piracy.