By Tom Clarke
The recent piracy attack, hijacking and kidnapping of two U.S. sailors off the coast of Nigeria is a very clear indication to stakeholders that the piracy landscape has shifted, not only regionally but also tactically. While Indian Ocean piracy attacks are on the decline, the International Maritime Bureau reports that Gulf of Guinea attacks have increased by a third this year. This should serve as a wake-up call to any organizations operating vessels in the region that vessel and crew defense must now be top of mind.
The nature of the recent Gulf of Guinea pirate attack on the Edison Chouest supply vessel, C-Retriever, differs from other attacks in a number of ways. According to news accounts, an unknown number of small piracy vessels attacked the C-Retriever simultaneously. The swarm attack tactic was employed minimally when piracy in the Indian Ocean was at its zenith two years ago. But the Nigerians have adapted. Consider this: even if the C-Retriever had been manned with sniper defense, the sudden surprise of a multi-vessel armed attack would be difficult to defend. Further, the C-Retriever’s gross tonnage is 2,092 tons as compared to large ocean freighters like the Maersk Alabama, with gross tonnage over 14,000 tons. With increased gross tonnage comes a larger area to defend but also better protection and more favorable defense positions.
It is likely that the Nigerian pirates monitored vessel movements for some time. The C-Retriever shuttles supplies and equipment to and from oil rigs off the Nigerian coast. While the vessel may visit different oil rigs at different times, its area of operations is confined and somewhat predictable. The predictable voyages and limited range made the C-Retriever a soft target. Now the vessel Master and Chief Engineer are captives of Nigerian pirates and are subject to the negotiating skills of the U.S. firm employed to bargain for their release.
Another unique aspect of this particular attack is that US sailors were singled out from the rest of the crew. It leads one to believe that the vessel was targeted because it was in fact a U.S.-flag vessel and the pirates believed they would find Americans aboard. Americans are now high value targets. Although it is U.S. government policy to not bargain ransom for prisoners, American corporations are free to do so and have deep pockets. The pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are astute students.
Vessels in the Gulf of Guinea, particularly small vessels, must evaluate their piracy defense strategies. The Best Management Practices may no longer be viable given the evolving tactics of what seems to be a more sophisticated Gulf of Guinea piracy undertaking.