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Piracy: Responding to Threat at Sea

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In the first half of this feature, we addressed media reporting of piracy and other threats at sea. This inevitably leads to the controversial debate surrounding armed security providers – sometimes portrayed as ‘armed thugs’, or described in similar ways to those they are employed to repel. 

In part two, we take a closer look at the role of maritime security, consulting the experts in order to strip away the hype and get a more accurate picture of security operators at work.

The solution: an armed response?

So how does the typical yacht captain combat piracy and other physical threats?  For many, the solution is simple: an armed threat requires an armed response.  As Chris Stewart, CEO of Black Pearl Maritime Security, concedes, ‘If you are attacked by a pirate group with guns then an armed response will always be required at some stage’.  Steven Jones, Maritime Director of The Security Association for the Maritime Industry (SAMI), summarises the situation well: ‘Newton’s famous law stating that every action prompts an equal and opposite reaction could also apply to anti-piracy…  As modern piracy has gripped the maritime world there has been an inevitable response, and the use of armed guards to deter them has become ever more commonplace…’

Filling the void

Many have spoken of the ‘vacuum effect’, when a surge of private security companies suddenly sprung up to counter the increase in piracy. This also coincided with the rise of ex-military personnel seeking private employment following the end of active service.  Maritime security was viewed as ‘the new frontier’ for the demobbed; the ‘new Iraq’.  At the same time, in a context lacking standardisation and regulation, many were not professional or experienced in the rules of the seas.  The absence of any clear international guidelines and regulation is what led to the creation of SAMI.  The rigorous ISO/PAS 28007 certification is now one way that Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSCs) can show their credentials and commitment to following procedure.

SAMI’s job is far from over.  As with any industry, there are the conscientious, highly-trained professionals and there are the occasional opportunistic rogues.  These two extremes bookend the many others who sit somewhere in the middle.  The problem is telling them apart, which highlights the importance of regulation and, of course, reputation.

Bad news travels faster

We asked the experts if they think there actually is an issue with inaccurate portrayals of the maritime security industry in the media.  Michael Frodl of C-LEVEL Maritime Risks notes that this depends on your definition of ‘inaccurate’:  ‘If you mean that we're to believe they're all cowboys, that's not true - there really are few of those.’

So where does the perception come from and why does the media often portray things in that way?

Take, for example, an article in 2012 from Bloomberg Businessweek (a well-respected US business paper, hardly a tabloid) which speaks of ‘overzealous or untrained guards… shooting indiscriminately’, with the comment, ‘It’s the Wild Wild West out there’. 

As Steven Jones acknowledges, ‘It is an unfortunate fact that people do not tend to be as interested in good news...  Bad news travels 10 times faster, and now in the social media driven age, it is even more immediate. If there is a hint of a scandal or problem, this can spread virally and it’s very hard for the truth to ever keep pace.’

One such story was the catastrophe in Nisour Square, Baghdad in 2007. In a public commotion, personnel from the private security firm Blackwater Security Consulting opened fire, leaving 17 civilians dead and a further 20 injured.

guard with binoculars 2This happened on land, but damaged the wider security industry. The following year, an unarmed private security team (including two ex-marines) aboard MV Biscaglia abandoned ship, leaving the vessel fatally exposed to armed hijackers.  The ship and crew were held for three months. This case perhaps advocates the use of weaponry and PMSCs will often cite that (in modern times) no vessel employing armed guards has been successfully attacked; a compelling statistic.  

Another tragic event occurred in 2012 aboard the Italian-flagged crude oil tanker, Enrica Lexie, off the coast of India.  Italian naval personnel, providing security shot at an approaching fishing trawler which they mistook for a pirate vessel, killing two of the innocent Indian crew.  Granted, the incident didn’t involve a PMSC directly, but they were operating on a private vessel.The two marines responsible are currently awaiting trial in New Delhi under anti-piracy laws, having narrowly escaped the death penalty.

PMSCs and guns in suits

These stories – if only rare – have marred the collective reputation of private security firms and, with or without guns, PMSCs have come off badly.  Chris Stewart, CEO of Black Pearl Maritime Security, recognises the challenges created by these reports: ‘As with all stories there does sometimes seem to be a negative portrayal; the media tend to only want to report on bad incidents, i.e. kidnappings and shootings. We understand why there is a need to highlight the serious incidents, but positive stories and statistics about the decline in piracy numbers can also be beneficial. Very little is reported about the success in driving down piracy that has occurred as a result of PMSCs being employed.’

More recently, with industry regulations tightening up, many will argue that any remaining rogues and bad practice are being squeezed out.  As Allmode notes: ‘There is still a view in the public that PMSCs are just hired guns, even though most security providers are, and have to be, extremely compliant and regulated to operate. All tasks have to be approved with flag state; they have to be compliant with the Open General Trade & Control License (OGTCL) to move and store weapons; and all operators are continually monitored for a criminal background and must complete mental health checks.’

coloured skiff pirates2Nonetheless, some will acknowledge that there are still some bad operators out there.  According to Chris Stewart: ‘Unfortunately this will always happen. However we feel that there is an opportunity for key industry associations, for example, organisations like SAMI, to become more proactive in not allowing ‘bad apples’ to continue being members.’

Steven Jones of SAMI adds: ‘There can be no place for those who use excessive force, for those with unlicensed weapons, or those who operate beyond the law. The foundations of an acceptable and an accepted industry can be summed up very simply – the support they provide for clients and the tools which they use to do so must be safe, legal, ethical, effective and pragmatic. If they satisfy these basic elements, then the client vessel will be protected, pirates deterred and the crew reassured.’

In terms of image, CASS Global asserts that ‘the stereotype of ‘maritime security’ in the form of physically intimidating, well-armed former soldiers does represent a considerable portion of the industry today. The reasons for this are twofold; misinformed clients still pay for it ergo security companies still sell it.’

Reputation is everything

Unsurprisingly, all the experts we consulted agreed that ‘reputation is everything’.

Allmode: ‘As this industry is very small, any bad press tars all companies with the same brush, so all the hard work and professionalism that has been gained over years can be tarnished by bad reports. As with any industry, you will get companies who are just out to make a fast buck and don’t invest in kit, correct personnel, training and development etc. These tend to be companies from outside the UK.  However due to the industry being more and more compliant, these companies are fading away as the owners/charterers, want the PMSC to be transparent and compliant - rightly so.’

PMSCs are not an obvious client for PR. So how can they set the record straight when a key marker in discerning a good firm is discretion? Security companies do not wish to advertise their whereabouts and it serves no purpose to openly divulge their practices.  As Steven Jones puts it, ‘There is also the matter of confidentiality and PMSCs excel at satisfying their client requirements –they do not self-promote even when things go well… On the odd occasion where there are issues, the news emerges from different sources. The PMSCs and their personnel concentrate on the job in hand, of protecting against pirates.’

Security personnel as seafarers?

A key debate that has emerged recently, with broad implications for the industry’s reputation, is whether security personnel should be regarded as seafarers.  It revolves around the definition of security either as a distinct entity or, as a fully-integrated part of the crew.  Supporters will argue that to work effectively, on board security must be incorporated into the overall operating framework from the outset. In fast-moving, uncertain situations, having a clear command structure and procedure can be the difference between life and death. 


There are also day to day practicalities to consider, such as passing through ports and checkpoints, as well as questions around entitlement to the raft of rights and benefits associated with being a crew member.  We asked the experts whether armed security should be classed as seafarers, with mixed responses.

Michael Frodl (C-LEVEL Maritime Risks): ‘They shouldn't - but they SHOULD follow the orders of the master - which many owners do NOT allow. That's bad for ship command.’

Chris Stewart (Black Pearl): ‘They are and should always be classed as seafarers, however it should also be recognised that the key roles and responsibilities are very different. A security officer is responsible for the overall safety of the vessel and its shipping operators; they need to integrate alongside the team. It is important to note that a security officer is a self-employed contractor, deployed by the PMSC to represent their company and perform to strict standards. Any tax issues should be sorted out by the individual.’

Allmode point out that despite legislative efforts to ensure consistency there is still no united global interpretation, and approaches to this may vary from port to port: ‘It may be left to the individual flag administrations to decide whether they consider the guards to be seafarers. The UK Maritime Coastguard Agency has announced that on UK-flagged vessels Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP) are not considered seafarers. There are regulations surrounding this however, including the requirement that the PCASPs are engaged under GUARDCON or an equivalent contractual arrangement providing for their protection, and the requirement that PCASPs are provided with suitable accommodation on board.’

Open to interpretation

‘The UK has announced that it will review this policy in May 2015, by which time more flag states will have made clear their thoughts on PCASPs under the Maritime Labour Convention.’

Overall, consensus is in favour of recognising security personnel as seafarers. According to  Allmode: ‘Armed Guards are tasked to do a job on board vessels, the same as a deck hand or cook or whatever the role. Therefore, how can it be discriminated that, just because they are security, they shouldn’t be classed as seafarers when they have had to do all modules of the STCW95, plus a Ship Security Officers course (MCA approved) or equivalent, pass an ENG1 seafarers medical every two years, all to the cost of the individual?  They also need to embark and disembark in various ports around the world; some ports only accept the seaman card and not the passport for visa application, exactly the same as for any seafarer.’

SAMI has conducted a survey of its readership on this issue. It was strongly felt that PMSCs were being ‘unfairly restricted’ – both in time and financially – through hold ups at ports and visa requirements. Other important points emerged from the survey: ‘…seeing PCASP classed as seafarers is important for the protection/welfare of individuals. Moreover, it was also stressed that if individuals are no longer able to obtain Seafarer Identification documents it would significantly curtail the ability of companies to recruit quality personnel with recent operational experience.’  SAMI’s Steven Jones notes these issues reflect ‘deep seated problems, and a seeming lack of appreciation of the complex role of PCASP.’

The survey also found that this lack of proper classification and issuing of seafarer identification documents has hindered business, recruitment and staff retention. Additionally, Jones recognises the cultural importance of integration, making it crucial to work with the crew as one cohesive unit.

Calculating the cost of security

As regulation and accountability increase, so do costs, and there’s growing concern over the pressure to cut overheads.

CASS Global offers a stern warning on skimping on proper security: ‘In a move eerily reminiscent of the war in Iraq, large numbers of maritime security providers are leaning out the presence of Western security personnel in favour of much cheaper local/ national talent. Though the paper equation remains the same in terms of manpower and qualifications, the true performance curve takes a nose dive in times of stress, which is precisely when you need them the most. The graph was identical in Iraq and Afghanistan and there is no valid reason history won’t repeat itself on the high seas.’

wikipedia piracyMichael Frodl agrees: ‘…now, with a flat global economy, ship owners and shippers are more interested in lower costs, not higher standards – and security is suffering from that, as people who stay on for a fraction of what was offered even a year ago have to be very desperate…  There really doesn't have to be more than 10 PMSCs world wide – now, we have 200 plus, many just barely holding on.’

Allmode shares the same concerns: ‘Responsible security providers do all in their power to ensure the safety of seafarers and minimise the risks. It is also understood that shipping companies are under constant pressure to maximise thin profit margins and are operating in a highly competitive environment of low freight rates and high costs of fuel. They may resent the increased costs of providing security but should ensure that their provider is a reputable and accredited company.’

Other tools to combat maritime threats

Guns may be an effective against guns but all this talk of weaponry and physical strength obscures the wider picture.  Maritime security is an extremely complex, multi-faceted function, and there are many daily practices and pieces of kit which can be deployed – some decidedly more subtle and less ‘exhilarating’, but all equally important.  Many of the tools at a crew’s disposal focus on prevention – taking effective steps to avoid a perilous situation from the outset will always take preference to testing security measures in a situation.  One approach is the ‘avoid, evade, deter, delay’ system.  Equally, knowing what to do if combat becomes inevitable is vital.  The importance of utilising technology, intelligence, awareness, and training – and applying them together cohesively – cannot be underestimated.

Technology itself is a powerful weapon. Today’s superyachts and ships are all fitted as standard with sophisticated GPS systems, helping to identify suspicious vessels and interacting with each other to share intelligence and coordinates. Hi-tech alarm and CCTV systems are also employed on many superyachts, as the ability to provide evidence is key for prosecution and compensation in the aftermath of an incident.  Other innovations include portable camera systems, covert tracking systems and 360-degree imagery, in order to simulate the exact layout of a specific vessel under threat, useful in logistics and planning of counter-operations. (See An Alternative Approach to Maritime Security from John Holden, Managing Director of QuinSec for more information.)

Chris Stewart promotes its growing importance: ‘The use of technology is certainly a benefit and one which is often overlooked. Black Pearl is innovating its business to help show there are other ways of protecting the vessel and crew.’  However, technology alone is no substitute for proper training, intelligence or human judgement.  As Michael Frodl states,: ‘Technology is no panacea - preventative methods are not being respected enough (Best Management Practices), and intel is also underutilised.’

Having up-to-date, accurate information from reliable sources on potential threats is perhaps the most valuable weapon of all. CASS Global emphasise the importance of stealth in maintaining the upper hand: ‘If the opposition does not know who we are or where we are going to, it becomes increasingly difficult to attack us, due to a lack of actionable intelligence…’  This approach also applies when ashore.  ‘To that end, our security operatives are very low profile, and avoid the stereotype of the bodyguard while ashore.

Further down the chain of command, the need for better crew training on awareness and how to respond is also gaining attention. Many crews might do the odd drill, but how many are sufficiently trained to deal with a security situation?  As CASS Global assert, proper awareness and crew training are essential: ‘When in doubt, focus on the human equation. Education, hard training, and a high standard of collective effort dramatically improve morale. Morale implies professional bearing, competence, and confidence in one’s team members. Well trained professionals deter criminals. Always have and always will.’

The future for superyacht security

So what does the future hold for maritime security?  Some would like to see standards such as the ISO 28007 accreditation to be made compulsory in order to trade.  Others note that this standard (while an important milestone) is still flawed, particularly in terms of the assessment criteria, requiring auditors with more direct experience in the maritime industry and lower costs for completion in order to be viable.

As we mentioned in the first part of this article, international pressure has had a positive effect in driving down Piracy in the Gulf of Aden, but addressing the wider depends on the sustained efforts of governments and the international community.  Koen Vervaeke, European External Action Service (EEAS) Director for the Horn of Africa puts things in perspective when he says: ‘You cannot combat piracy just at sea. Tackling piracy requires different kinds of intervention: military, legal, development, capacity building on social economic environment, and finally, a political effort.’ 

The best way to disarm the media hype is not to believe everything you read, and get your information from a reliable source. There are some excellent resources for maritime security and intelligence such as SAMI’s online portal ‘The Bridge’ and Allmode’s Regional Security Reports which will be available in OnboardOnline’s  Security section from next week.

In the meantime, the yachting industry can do much to protect itself but, at a practical level, the responsibility must lie with captains and owners to take all necessary precautions for their crew and passengers while at sea and ashore.

Next month we examine ‘Sobering Thoughts: Crew Safety Ashore’.

Photo credits: Mark O'Connell via, UK Ministry of Defence, flickr/Ruby,GoesSAMI, US Navy 

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