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Ships deter pirate stalkers by signaling armed guard’s presence

Saturday, May 26, 2012

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LONDON — Ships at risk of attack by Somali pirates are increasingly indicating when they have armed guards on board to deter assailants they suspect are using Internet- based vessel-tracking systems to identify targets.

At least 30 ships ranging from oil tankers to commodity carriers last indicated they were being protected by armed security, according to satellite signals captured by IHS Inc. and compiled by Bloomberg on Tuesday. The tactic probably started in December, according to OAO Sovcomflot, Russia’s largest tanker company, which is among the companies using the practice.

Pirates are using Internet-based tracking systems to watch shipping and naval activities, according to Hans Lodder, head of the Netherlands Defence Staff’s Naval Requirements Branch and a former commanding officer of the frigate HNLMS Tromp. Under International Maritime Organization rules, captains are normally meant to transmit Automatic Identification System signals to avoid accidents at sea, with an option to switch the gear off if its use is thought to make a ship vulnerable to attack.

“Putting such a statement in the destination field in AIS can be seen as a warning to pirates able to monitor AIS and as a notification to naval forces about the presence of armed guards,” Peter Sand, an analyst at the Baltic and International Maritime Council in Bagsvaerd, Denmark, said Monday. The group represents 65 percent of world owners.

Global pirate attacks fell 28 percent to 102 in the first quarter as naval interventions reduced incidents off the coast of Somalia, the London-based International Maritime Bureau said April 23. About $965 billion of cargo bound for Europe passes through the high-risk area, according to Justine Greening, British Secretary of State for Transport.

Vessel masters decide whether to display information other than a destination using AIS equipment, Sand said. They can turn off the signals in areas at risk of piracy, provided they turn the gear on again when attacked, according to Interorient Marine Services (Germany) GmbH, whose ships transit the area twice a month. No ship carrying armed guards has been hijacked successfully, according to the Security Association for the Maritime Industry.

The EU force has a mission of containing piracy in a region about 1 1/2 times the size of western Europe with nine warships and five patrol aircraft. Video footage on the website of Google Inc.’s YouTube showing Dutch marines seizing a ship that had been hijacked by pirates in 2010 was downloaded 35 times in Somalia, Lodder said.

“The pirates are becoming more violent, more cunning, and they are increasingly using sophisticated technology, including GPS, satellite phones and international connections,” Saeed Mohamed, minister of maritime transport, ports and counter piracy in Somali Puntland, said Wednesday at a conference in London. Networks in places including London and Dubai are used to identify destinations and locations of vulnerable ships, according to the minister.

Maritime piracy’s total cost came to $7 billion last year, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy, a project of the Broomfield, Colo.-based nonprofit One Earth Future Foundation. The shipping industry bore more than 80 percent of costs, it said in a report. Spending on security equipment and guards amounted to between $1.06 billion and $1.16 billion, the report showed.

It’s important that captains don’t try to bluff pirates by pretending to have armed guards on board, said David Sharp, health safety security environment manager at Unicom Management Services (Cyprus Ltd). The company is a ship-management unit of OAO Sovcomflot, which operates 157 vessels, its website shows.

“Initially I don’t see any issue with it, excepting of course if the information is incorrect,” Limassol, Cyprus-based Sharp said. “If it’s incorrect, it could result in the delay of military intervention. When a team’s on board, I have no objection to it. But to try and fool people, it’s a double-edged sword.”

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