What Is the Cause of Sea Piracy?

Why Modern Sea Piracy Is a Growing Problem in Some Regions

Anti-piracy team checking on a ship off the coast of Benin, West Africa
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Most sea piracy is a crime of opportunity. Pirates, like other criminals, avoid operating in difficult environments. If controlling factors are not present then the possibility of piracy grows along with the severity of pirate attacks.

The main reasons for piracy are not exclusive to crimes against ships. Social acceptance, lack of legal consequence, chronic unemployment, and opportunity all play a role in supporting a criminal enterprise.

Social Acceptance of Piracy

Even in this modern era of shipping, there is an occasional port where the population imposes an unofficial tax on visiting vessels. This is usually burglary of equipment or stores and many times there is no contact between pirates and crew. This type of crime is as old as shipping and has little economic impact on large operators. Any theft has the potential to cause additional losses if critical gear or supplies are stolen.

The type of piracy that costs the shipping industry an estimated seven to fifteen billion dollars a year is very different from crimes near ports. This type of situation usually includes pirates holding the crew and vessel for ransom. Some hostage situations last over a year and captives die from malnutrition or disease. When ransoms are paid they can be millions of dollars.

In the areas where pirates are operating there is public acceptance of their activities. In economically depressed areas these crimes bring additional funds into the economy. The majority of the money will go to financiers from outside the community but many pirates living nearby will spend with legitimate local merchants.

Chronic Unemployment

In this case, we aren't talking about the type of unemployment familiar to residents of developed nations. Chronic unemployment in developing areas means not ever being able to find a job. So some people may only have occasional informal work and there is little opportunity in the future.

There is a long-running argument over how to deal with piracy which can be summed up as "feed them or shoot them". This argument is extreme at both ends of the spectrum but does show poverty is a significant motivator for pirates. The life of a pirate is difficult, and often ends in death, so desperation is almost always a precursor to piracy.

No Legal Consequences

It's only recently that pirates faced legal consequences for their actions. The pirates of a small private sailboat, the S/V Quest, were tried in U.S. Federal Court after all four U.S citizens aboard were killed. Combined European Naval Forces operations in the Arabian Sea have led to many arrests and some convictions.

Legal strategies change often as some pirates are charged in their countries of residence while some are charged based on the flag of the pirated vessel. In some cases, trials take place in nations adjacent to the location of the crime. This is true of Kenyan pirate trials of Arabian Sea pirates.

The legal system will eventually develop to the point where international law is able to impose strong sentences on pirates but right now there are many loopholes and the potential reward outweighs the risk.

In 2011 the IMO released a document to offer advice for the use of armed personnel on ships which quickly led to a large number of security companies being formed and hired by shippers able to pay $100,000 and up for armed security teams.

Less professional teams out for revenge occasionally tortured or killed surrendered pirates. One security team set fire to a small pirate skiff filled with bound pirates and the video was widely circulated online as a warning.

Pirate Opportunities

Certain types of situations can lead to a kind of nationalistic piracy. This is often a territorial dispute over nautical borders or resources.

The 20-year span of increasing pirate attacks off the coast of East Africa is due to a fishing dispute where Somali fishermen took control of boats of other nations fishing in their territory. A long-running civil war left the country without a government or the ability to patrol their waters.

Eventually, the fishermen were regarded as protectors of the fishery and supported by the community. Later, after ransoms were being paid regularly, some pirates realized an oil tanker was worth more in ransom than a wooden fishing boat. This is how months-long standoffs for the control of ships and crew came to be commonplace in the areas of East Africa.