Ecological repercussions of piracy and terrorist attacks at sea can be disastrous. By Iro Theofanides
Piracy and terrorist actions at sea can result in incalculable human suffering as well as damage of various kinds to merchant vessels and their cargoes as the collateral damage involved. Tankers with crude oil and other vessels carrying hazardous materials, such as toxic and nuclear waste, are among ships crossing high risk waters in the face of the likelihood of a successful pirate attack potentially leading to an ecological disaster with devastating repercussions.
Type of piracy according to seagoing area:
The Indian Ocean: pirates capture vessels in order to collect a ransom. In this scenario, they are not interested in damaging the vessels or their cargo. In fact, they are strongly dedicated to holding the crew captive under all circumstances.
The Strait of Malacca, the Yellow Sea, the Caribbean and the west coast of Central America: pirates aim to seize money and food, grabbing everything they can carry.
West Africa and especially the region off Nigeria: piracy action in these waters is extremely aggressive, without regard for human life, concentrating on stealing the cargo.
In the past decade we have not witnessed any terrorist action at sea, except that involving in October 2002 the French super tanker Limburg off the Yemeni coast. That coincidentally happened on the second anniversary of the attack in the same area against the USS destroyer Cole. The attack on the Limburg was pure suicide! Besides losing 90, 000 barrels of oil and being set alight, there was a fatality; one crew member died. As far as pollution goes, there was some concern, but not on a scale to cause great alarm. Worth also mentioning the violent and audacious attack on the cruise liner Seabourn in November 2005 which highlighted the need of ships to be alert and stay clear of danger, or be prepared to take quick avoiding action. It has been said that, despite the type of the vessel, an ecological disaster was avoided.
In relation to ocean shipping, we have not seen any terrorist group attack making use of hostages or hazardous materials, in order to achieve political goals. Specifically, if a piracy action were conducted by terrorists, the terrorist planners would have a very particular strategy. In case of a successful boarding, they could well use the cargo of the captured vessel as a contamination threat towards a particular state or even against a broader swathe of humanity.
Now imagine if terrorists, with the support of pirates, planned to take over a ship, a tanker, and spill the oil on a Mediterranean or Caribbean coastline usually full of holiday makers. What would happen? How well prepared is society to counter such an attack?
Any kind of piracy or terrorist action at sea can lead to a horrific environmental disaster, as all vessels may cause pollution if incompetently handled. Deliberately or inadvertently pirates can pollute an extensive length of coastline, through mismanagement during disembarkation or during the transportation of stolen cargo. By their very nature, pirates are scarcely likely to have a care for the environment.
The problem starts right from the beginning, ransom being a key part of the equation, and this often means that pirates take command of the vessel for a substantial amount of time. Most often they have little or no knowledge of navigating big ships through rough seas, thus, the risk of an accident at sea or near the coastline can end up turning into an environmental catastrophe. Crews are forced to comply with the pirates’ demands and sail the vessels accordingly; or if pirates hijack vessels they are incapable of handling them and refuse to co-operate with ship’s crew and unthinkable disasters can occur.
Whenever ships carry dangerous cargoes, various governments and the international shipping community should take extremely serious measures to protect them and their crews during their voyage, especially in naval areas were the possibility of a piracy and/or terrorist action is strong.
The environmental and ecological catastrophe caused by very large crude carrier Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989 still revives the horrors of what might go wrong, yet that emergency was a pure accident! In 1992, pirates attacked an oil tanker, registered in Cyprus, the Valiant Carrier, reminding the world of what piracy can lead to. In that case, the pirates gathered the crew and locked them up. The vessel was left with no command. Thanks to a bold crew member who managed to escape, a major disaster was averted. Between 1989 and 1993 there were two other cases of vessels left without command as a result of piracy action. There are occasions when pirates shove the crews into life rafts and boats, leaving the ship adrift. Such actions may result in collision or grounding, and environmental disasters.
Over time, attackers become bolder and use more advanced weaponry, which means that a tanker could be set on fire, sunk or forced ashore. Any of which can result in an ecological disaster ruinous to marine, bird and human life.
Piracy’s main focus is to extort ransom payments; at the same time, the possibility that they can seriously harm shipping is ever present. Measures such as enhanced maritime domain awareness along with addressing serious concerns about pollution can help reduce piracy. However, that means big money which no one is willing to give, added to the fact that a successful anti-piracy plan requires a stable political environment, friendly neighbours and adequate resources.
Because it is rather unlikely that this will happen, the closest and best solution for now is deployment of marine guards. By using existing information about the tactics and weaponry of pirates and terrorists, deploying the necessary equipment, and co-operation with the established naval authorities, attacks can be thwarted.