Image: Markus Spiske (Unsplash)

2020 was expected to be a “super year for the ocean”, with a number of scheduled important political events on ocean governance, climate change, security and sustainable development which were expected to yield great progress in these areas. This aspiration, however, was unfortunately quashed by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In 2019 the lowest number of maritime piracy attacks were reported, however, this downwards trend did not follow through into 2020. International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB’s) latest report stated 132 global attacks since the start of 2020, which is an increase from 119 in the same period last year.  Although this is only an increase of 10%, the impact of this increase is far reaching. In terms of international trade, it is estimated that an increase of 10 piracy attacks on a maritime trade route between two countries results in a decrease in bilateral trade by 2.8%. Therefore, the increase in attacks in 2020 could hinder international trade which has already taken a blow this year due to border lockdowns. 

In addition to the general increase in maritime piracy, another trend has surfaced. Merchandise theft has been replaced by kidnappings of seafarers. April saw attacks on floating production storage and offloading vessels off the coast of Nigeria, but the main target has not been the produce stored. In one incident, a storage vessel with a 50 000-barrel oil capacity was attacked, however, the oil cargo was left intact and nine crew members were kidnapped. One explanation for this trend is the drop of oil price. In March 2020, the United States’ (US) oil price dropped below zero because oil producers lacked storage space and therefore there was an oversupply when national lockdowns were implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19. The drop in oil price meant that it was no longer worthwhile to steal oil as its value had dramatically decreased and therefore pirates turned their focus to ransom and onboard valuables.  

There is another trend in maritime piracy which can be causally related to the COVID-19 lockdowns. These lockdowns left many ships stranded for quarantining, which greatly decreased their security and increased their risk of becoming targets. Additionally, as explained by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the rise in attacks are correlated with the ceasing of dock activities in docks for quarantining, and a sudden decrease in incomes of already fragile shore populations. The increase in economic strain left many families desperate, turning them to alternative means of income, including illicit activities such as maritime piracy.

This effect may not cease when lockdowns are completely lifted. The increase in piracy attacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to long term consequences and undermine global reduction in piracy, evident by 2019 low reports. More people could be incentivised to participate in piracy. This could be further heightened by increased joblessness. 

Despite these concerns, an approach implemented by South Africa (SA) to use technology to increase the security of its surrounding seas could provide a solution for other coastal African countries. SA has implemented sophisticated technologies to track maritime activities in their waters. The technology identifies patterns of criminal behaviour and compiles a database to monitor suspects, thus allowing the South African Navy to assess credible threats. SA has also used Synthetic Aperture Radar technologies which can detect ‘dark targets’ who illegally deactivate their transponders. 

Although these technologies have proved promising, the COVID-19 pandemic has hindered the development of this approach. The pandemic has led to budget cuts and the reallocation of government funds, not only in SA but in many other African countries as well, making this approach less viable despite its proposed success. Going forward, Timothy Walker, maritime project leader and senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) suggests regional and international cooperation in terms of joint maritime security operations and, information sharing could supplement the lack of domestic funds. 

Laura is in her final year of BPolSci International Studies degree at the University of Pretoria and is concurrently completing a level 4 NALP paralegal diploma. She hopes to complete her honors in International Relations in 2021 and pursue a career in the field of Public International Law and Human Rights. Laura is one of the permanent members of the writing staff at The Art of Politics.

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