The Cost of Piracy

Geospatial Technologies Aid Mitigation

Fig. 1

GeoEye satellite image shows the Sirius Star, a Saudi-owned crude oil carrier hijacked by Somali pirates in November 2008. Image taken Nov. 20, 2008, courtesy of GeoEye.

Fig. 2

TerraSAR-X radar satellite image illustrates the unique capabilities of SAR to capture the wakes of ships. This StripMap acquisition of the Strait of Gibraltar shows busy vessel traffic, with the shape and trajectory of the wakes helping to determine ship speed and location. Image courtesy of Astrium GEO-Information Services.

Fig. 3

GeoEye’s SeaStar Service provides insight into current conditions. These dynamic maps of the Western Indian Ocean show sea surface temperature (SST). The map returns detailed values based on where your cursor is placed, and is updated daily.

Fig. 4

GeoEye’s SeaStar Service provides insight into current conditions. These dynamic maps of the Western Indian Ocean show sea surface temperature (SST) overlaid with ocean currents. The map returns detailed values based on where your cursor is placed, and is updated daily.

Vector1 Media
Denver, Colo.

Curtailing the Cost of Piracy

By definition, piracy is the act of robbery on the high seas. While the life of the pirate has been highly romanticized, with historic depictions fueling blockbuster movies, piracy continues to be a high-risk and high-reward pursuit. What’s increasingly clear in today’s global economy is that the damage done by pirates to trade and the environment far exceeds their take.

It’s hard to understand how such activities can continue unchecked today given our sophisticated monitoring technologies. The fact that our oceans make up two-thirds of the surface of the globe provides some understanding of the problem, making it difficult to achieve any level of persist-ent surveillance with moving targets over such broad geographies. Geospatial technologies have a strong role to play in piracy mitigation, with sensors and systems combining to help detect and track today’s ocean robbers.

Somali Lawlessness

The vexing problem of Somali piracy is one of global concern, with broad economic impacts on shipping companies, governments, and individuals. Problems that started as illegal fishing and taxation of fishing vessels by private coast guards have escalated to widespread hijacking and hostage-taking for ransom that is now growing in geographic scope.

Special thanks to Oceans Beyond Piracy, a project of One Earth Future, which sponsored an event detailing Somali Piracy in partnership with the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver in March 2012.

Somalia is responsible for 60% of all global piracy, with 62 deaths as a result of piracy since 2007. The unique challenge is in large part due to the lack of a local rule of law with the dissolution of the central Somali government in 1991. The mix of poverty, concentration of shipping, and the extensive coast line, together with competing tribal entities, and the requirement for young men to have a dowry to marry, all exacerbate the problem.

A global lack of ownership of this problem exists largely because piracy doesn’t amount to a national security or military threat to western countries. Any country or company that takes action has an issue of what to do with captured pirates; with competing jurisdictions and a lack of local courts, most are just released.

Tangled Issues

To date, the thorny legal and moral issues surrounding piracy have meant that little progress has been made on the problem. Oceans Beyond Piracy, an issue-focused initiative of the One Earth Future Foundation (, is hard at work to harness expert opinion on the interconnected issues of piracy and economy, with the aim of providing long-term solutions.

At the forefront of their efforts is an influential annual report that quantifies the economic cost of Somali piracy on a global scale. The report puts a $7 billion yearly price tag on the problem. The need to increase vessel speed is the largest cost segment, with poor fuel economy stacking up, followed by military expense, investment in on-board security personnel and equipment, re-routing delays and costs, insurance expenses, hazard pay to the crew, and finally, the ransoms. While the common assumption is that ransom is the biggest expense, it turns out that it’s only two percent of the total. The recurring annual costs of these mitigation strategies make up 99 percent of the expense, with very few funds going toward long-term solutions.

The human cost is an additional burden that proves hard to quantify. From the Somali side, young teenage boys are coerced into service, set loose to capture a ship, and told not to come back if they don’t succeed, with many never returning. The crews of the captured vessels are largely poor Asian men, whose working conditions include piracy as a very real threat to their safety. In India, where many crew originate, it has been calculated that each crew member held for ransom has a direct impact on the livelihood of seven individuals, according to Dr. Swadesh Rana, Oceans Beyond Piracy, India. If that figure were to be extrapolated to the 1,181 hostages taken in 2011 alone, the cumulative impact on those personally affected becomes quite a large number – well over 8,000.

Geographic Spread

The pirates’ effectiveness has been somewhat curtailed with enhanced private armed security aboard ships, but armed guards are a costly deterrent. The crackdown has helped reduce the number of effective incidents this past year, but it has also led to a geographic spread of operations further East toward India, and northeast toward the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz, with pirates seen as far as 600 miles off the Somali coast. See Figure 1.

Tracking and apprehending pirates is a capability of Navies from around the world, and the combined forces of the NATO Operation Ocean Shield, the European Union, and the Combined Maritime Forces of the U.S. coalition are making some mark. This operation has included helicopter surveillance as well as surveillance aircraft that travel the full extent of the Somali coastline collecting aerial imagery.

Because pirates often operate in early morning or in periods of low visibility, infrared imagery has proven to be a powerful tool. In addition, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery can be used at night and can penetrate clouds during the day. SAR imagery can pick up the wakes of ships, with the shape and trajectory of the wake helping to determine ship speed and location. See Figure 2.

Ocean Shield has operated since 2008, and been involved in several actions against pirates, but captured pirates are often released for lack of sufficient grounds for prosecution. Actions against individual pirates treat only symptoms rather than the disease, which is the lack of stable institutions in Somalia. With greater monitoring, and an improved understanding of the overall impacts, the hope is to channel international support to programs that can make a long-term difference.

Taking Fish

From a conservation perspective, it’s ironic that the activity of Somali pirates patroling and accosting ships along their coasts is having a positive impact on fisheries. Tuna and marlin populations are thriving where commercial fishing trawlers have been chased away, and the negative impact to the $6 billion tuna industry in the Indian Ocean are an additional economic factor not accounted for in the costs outlined above.

The challenges of sustainability can be summarized in the realization that we currently have enough resources to fit our needs, but not our greed. Perhaps nowhere is this greed more apparent than with illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and the use of illegal means such as drift nets to catch fish. These acts are rightly deemed piracy because they flout international controls to avoid the fate of fisheries that have collapsed due to over-fishing, taking resources without regard to long-term environmental health, and risking food security for the sake of profit.

The spread of Somali-style piracy certainly isn’t the answer to curb the costs of illegal fishing or to sustain this resource for future generations, but something must be done. The U.S. government assesses global costs of illegal fishing at $23 billion in lost license income and lost catches for legal fishermen, as well as the economic cost to local communities who lose the resource. Additionally, there is an ecological cost that plays out over a much longer period of time, with many of the methods used to catch fish illegally causing damage to fish habitat that will last for decades.

Vessel Monitoring

Satellite imagery and information service provider GeoEye compiles oceanographic data from multiple satellites on a daily basis through their SeaStar Fisheries Information Service. The service looks at such indicators as plankton concentration, water temperature, weather and current patterns, and 3D oceanographic maps to provide a detailed picture of real-time fishing conditions. See Figures 3-4.

“We started the SeaStar service to help fishermen find fish, but over the last few years we’ve seen a push toward monitoring the seas to make sure that highly migratory species like tuna are not being overfished,” said Chris Wilson, senior director, sales and marketing of Marine Services at GeoEye. “There is a lot of government surveillance taking place to detect IUU vessels, with effort to monitor and look for vessels that aren’t compliant. We need to be cognizant of the efforts and support these initiatives for the good and longevity of the entire industry.”

Most regulated waters now include a tracking device for every licensed vessel, so that governments can now look specifically for vessels without the device. GeoEye has combined on-board sensors, satellite reporting, and recording systems into a vessel monitoring service to help governments and fishery observers to monitor and record fishing activities. The need to pinpoint where boats go, and why, can also be informed through such services as GeoEye’s SeaStar Service in order to help plan enforcement efforts most efficiently. All the vessels, including those acting illegally, will be in areas of good fishing along temperature and plankton fronts, and knowing where legal vessels are helps pinpoint where IUU vessels might be.

Fishing Efficiency

Today’s fishing vessel is well equipped with technology, with GPS, radar, and sonar systems on board, and with augmented insight through satellite data. These tools have greatly improved the efficiency of vessels to catch their quotas quickly. With this improved fishing efficiency there is heightened concern that we’re overfishing our oceans.

The growing pressures on fisheries, with increasing human populations and impacts of climate change, place urgency on education and action to maintain sustainability. A wide number of organizations have banded for a common vision of environmental sustainability that connects directly to our plates.

The International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) is working on a global scale to assess the health of fisheries and to curb the IUU problem. The ISSF compiles and maintains data on the health of fisheries as well as a database of unique identifiers of vessels that comply with conservation measures. The focus on tracking vessels makes it tougher for vessels to make illegal catches, and with support from processors, traders and importers that do business only with those vessels in the program, those that skirt the system will face shrinking markets.

Robotic Monitoring

The need to more tightly monitor fishing vessels is leading to new sensor-based approaches to help curtail the costs and unworkable logistics of having observers aboard every boat.

Archipelago Marine Research is working alongside ISSF, and has outfitted a Spanish tuna fishing vessel as a test case. A video-based electronic monitoring system uses an array of sensors to monitor key fishing gear and to trigger video cameras when it detects fishing activity. A central control center manages the system and logs the data, along with vessel location, speed, and heading information provided by the system’s GPS receiver. The system delivers hourly updates via satellite throughout the trip, and when the vessel returns to port, any portion of the logged data can be reviewed.

This new level of on-vessel monitoring helps to deal with depleted fishing stock, and places a monitor where human observers aren’t a practical option. Based on feedback from this project, the system will be fine-tuned and could provide an unprecedented level of oversight to curb not only illegal fishing, but also the ecological issue of catching non-targeted species such as endangered sea turtles.

Whether we’re concerned with national/human security or food security, the problem of piracy has broad implications for both economies and the environment. The complexity of the problem is underscored in Somalia, where the lack of institutions makes it very difficult to coordinate a response. Yet, geospatial technologies play a key role in detection and mitigation, and with technological advancement and improved coordination, we can curtail the costs and decrease harm.

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