Thursday, 31 December 2009

Pirates attack tanker off Indian Coast!

Details sketchy, but incident likely to send shockwaves across the country.

MUMBAI, 24 December: An Indian ship with a 41 member crew was attacked by pirates in the Arabian Sea alarmingly close to the Indian coast on Monday. Although details are yet sketchy, quick and decisive action by the Master is said to have foiled the attack, which saw the Indian Navy and Coast Guard swinging into action.

The Shipping Corporation of India owned tanker Maharaj Agrasen was carrying carrying crude oil to Visakhapatnam from Min Al Ahmadi in Kuwait when she was reportedly attacked by pirates with rocket propelled grenades and machine guns barely 370 miles off the West Coast of India. PTI quoted the National Union of Seafarers of India's General Secretary Abdulgani Y Serang as saying, “"The incident took place late on Monday night when a group of pirates in speedboats attacked the vessel with machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. However, quick thinking by the ship's captain saved the crew members."  Other officials have confirmed the attack; one said that the Captain tried to ram the tanker into one of the pirate boats, then altered course and increased speed to prevent any pirates boarding the vessel. The crew is apparently unharmed.

The Times of India quotes officials from the Directorate General of Shipping (DGS) saying that SCI had contacted them to report the incident. "The owners contacted the directorate and informed us that the vessel was under attack by eight unlit boats about 366 nautical miles west of Ratnagiri," said a DGS official. The ‘Maharaj Agrasen’ was carrying 1.34 lakh metric tonnes of crude oil when she sent out a security alert at almost midnight that day.

Last Friday, Somali pirates had hijacked the Indian vessel 'MV Neseya' with 13 crew off the coast of Kismayo about 170 nautical miles North East of Mombasa; the vessel is reported to have been taken to one of the pirate havens in the country.

In another incident, the Syrian Master of the Panamanian ship Barwaqo was shot dead when he refused to alter course away from Mogadishu; the attack took place close to the harbour when the vessel was approaching the Somali capital, much of which is not under Somali government control. African Union peacekeepers and Somali forces later took control of the ship after a gun battle. Some reports claim that the master may have been killed by “friendly fire”.

The Agrasen attack will undoubtedly send shock waves across the Indian shipping Industry and the security agencies in the country. This attack, if actually just 370 miles off the coast, is new territory for Somali pirates; questions will be asked if this is some new group operating from closer than Somalia.

Analysts say that it also exposes, as an earlier incident this month where two Indian Coast Guard sailors were kidnapped for 24 hours by Sri Lankan fishermen before the Indian forces freed them, that the country’s coastline remains our Achilles’ Heel. Pirate attacks even a thousand miles from Somalia are one thing; a pirate attack just 366 miles off Ratnagiri is indeed alarming, especially in the backdrop of possible Al Shabaab, Pakistani and Al Qaeda terrorist links to the criminals.

It may be premature to comment since details of the Agrasen attack are not known so far, but it is clear that the Indian Navy and Coast Guard will have to do much more to safeguard our coastlines from any future attacks; one Mumbai is more than enough.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Copenhagen's impact on Shipping

The strained United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen is proving to be anything but united as far as member states are concerned. However, even as nations negotiate with the many contentious issues on emissions that have emerged, it appears that the pressure on the shipping industry to do something about its carbon footprint is very much on. Critics allege that the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has done precious little to push for a reduction in greenhouse emissions from ships and that the maritime industries should be now forced to fall in line with others around the world.

Media reports suggest that many options have been tabled to regulate emissions from shipping. Included are market based mechanisms of emissions trading gaining momentum elsewhere in industry, offset crediting, a 'bunker fuel charge', or indeed a  workable combination of all these. The consensus is that the IMO must be made responsible for the final plan that should be robust and sustainable. There are, however, some voices demanding that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) be responsible for the bunker levy fund that would be collected. Although details are sketchy since the negotiations are secretive, observers at the conference believe that the IMO option would be best for the industry.

If the tax is approved, a £100bn “climate aid fund" will be setup to help poorer countries deal with climate change. Almost a quarter of this fund will come from taxes or an emissions trading system specifically for industries such as shipping as aviation, amongst others. Although the official British view is that emissions trading is preferable over taxes on aviation and shipping, political parties in the UK are divided on this stand. The opposition parties there say that 'polluters must pay', rather than taxpayers.

Shipping always has suffered a bad reputation amongst the general public; Copenhagen proved to be no exception. Chanting the slogan, "Hit the Production" demonstrators confronted police outside the Oesterport rail station close to the headquarters of Danish shipping giant Moeller-Maersk last weekend. Although 200 protestors were detained, the industry's cause was not helped by the media headlines and images that flashed around the world.

Industry opinion within shipping is as divided as it is at Copenhagen. Some European shipowners agree that something needs to be done to regulate
Greenhouse gas emissions, and point out that 5pc of all global carbon dioxide emissions come from ships. Unsurprisingly, many developed countries agree.
Initial resistance from developing nations has thawed somewhat, though many say that this would have a negative impact on their industries. However, a few delegates told reporters privately that the bunker tax proceeds going to the climate aid fund was a good idea. Increased pressure on shipping was seen to mount; airlines enter the European emissions trading scheme in 2012, and critics allege that it is high time shipping paid its share too.

Meanwhile, the IMO is said to be keen to be part of the administration of any scheme that is approved at Copenhagen; it probably fears that a move to get the UNFCCC to control the fund would challenge its regulatory authority. However, most analysts say that a tax regime would be extremely difficult to implement or enforce with so many vendors of bunkers located in unregulated or poorly regulated countries.

The tax regime is hardly a done deal, anyway, with negotiators saying that any agreement will be very difficult, and more so in the present tense atmosphere at the Cophenhagen summit. Nevertheless and regardless of the final outcome at the talks, it appears obvious that the maritime industries are slated to come under increasing pressure on global warming in future.


Thursday, 17 December 2009

Four and a half years on a catamaran!

Family of four back in Hong Kong after epic voyage

Arni Highfield and his family have just completed an epic four and half years at sea, living and sailing on a catamaran halfway around the world. They returned to Hong Kong two days ago to a world that their daughter Molly (11) said was 'unfamiliar' in her blog even as she was thrilled to be back in Hong Kong.

Arni, a former British merchant mariner and retired Hong Kong marine police officer, his wife Cam, a Hong Kong Chinese who was once a Cable News reporter, have visited twenty countries along with their daughters Molly and Nancy in their herculean voyage. Their path took them to the South Pacific, Guam and Micronesia, Japan and South Korea, with long halts in many places. The daughters were homeschooled by Cam aboard the Jade; Cam says, laconically, that it was just like school except that they did not have any classmates.

It was always Arni Highfield's dream to travel around the world in a yacht and "to go to places and meet people together as a family." Nearing retirement, Arni read 'mountains of yachting magazines', finally buying a yacht called Paloma at the Hebe Haven Yacht Club in Hong Kong, which he later swapped for the Rafiki, a 40 foot yacht, before finally deciding to buy a 42 foot catamaran from the United States, one that he eventually christened "Jade". The entire family sailed out of Hong Kong for England on the QEII; the voyage on the liner was a benefit given to Arni on retirement. They then flew to Florida to take over Jade, setting sail from the US in the summer of 2005.

They traveled up and down the East Coast of the United States before moving south through the Panama Canal. They then followed the West Coast of South America, before sailing on to the Galapagos Islands, Micronesia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Australia. From there they sailed to Guam and Japan, and on to South Korea and Taiwan.

They returned from their fascinating journey this month, safely arriving in Hong Kong at after a scary three day 30 to 40 knots downwind voyage from Kenting, Taiwan. They had many cherished moments on their voyage but some of the most fascinating were the wild animals of the Galapagos, the people in the Cook Islands and Guam, and the culture in Vanuatu.

For now, they plan to remain in Hong Kong for a while living on board the Jade, and see if they can adjust to life in their homeport. In any case, their once in a lifetime voyage will be a tough act to follow.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Pirate ‘stock exchange’ flourishes in Somalia

“We have made piracy a community activity”

 Somalia seemed to take another few steps forward in its apparent descent into complete anarchy last week as a suicide bomber wearing the traditional veil worn by Muslim women killed at least ten people at a graduation ceremony in Mogadishu, including two Government officials.  

The tenuous hold of the Somali transitional government, long supported by US backed African troops and military equipment, does not extend much beyond a few streets of the capital Mogadishu. To make matters worse, the war zone threatens to spill over to Kenya as Al Qaeda linked insurgent group Al Shabaab seized Dhobley, a Somali town near the border last week, defeating rival Hizbul Islam rebels whose leaders have reportedly sought refuge in Kenya. Al Shabaab had threatened to attack Kenya in June, and although it has been fighting the government in Mogadishu beside the Hizbul Islam, it is obvious that there are no long term alliances between the two: a fact that bodes ill for stability in war torn Somalia.

As is further proof of lawlessness or anarchy was needed, here it is: Reuters now reports that the pirates in Haradheere, just 250 miles from Mogadishu, have set up a sort of collaborative arrangement. A criminal consortium now allows ordinary residents to participate in the funding of ship hijackings in exchange for a future share of the loot; “a sort of stock exchange meets criminal syndicate”. Although financiers from outside Somalia have long been suspected of underwriting Somali piracy, this new in house retail arrangement for funding piracy says much about the state of law and order in Somalia and about the depth of pirate support.

This is how it works. An ‘exchange’ was setup to manage pirate investments and finances. Much like a legitimate business would, pirate ‘companies’ seek financial participation from ordinary residents of Haradheere; this will fund future pirate activity and gets them local support and protection. Up to 72 ‘companies’ have been listed in the Haradheere exchange so far, up from fifteen when they started the exchange during the monsoons this year. Ten of these companies boast proven success in hijacking ships, a record of accomplishment that could make them more attractive to investors. This pirate "stock exchange" is open 24 hours a day and is booming.

A pirate told Reuters "The shares are open to all and everybody can take part, whether personally at sea or on land by providing cash, weapons or useful materials ... we've made piracy a community activity." They have also transformed Haradheere from a sleepy fishing village to a dusty pot holed town complete with traffic jams caused by brand new luxury SUVs purchased with ransom pickings, and a town in which Mogadishu has no control.  A local official says, “Piracy pays for everything.”

From the story of Abdirahman Ali, an exile from Mogadishu’s fighting who guards a hijacked Thai fishing boat to that of ‘piracy investor’ Sahra Ibrahim waiting for her cut of a ransom payment, piracy has stakeholders everywhere in a region with close to zero employment opportunities otherwise. Sahra got a rocket propelled grenade from her ex husband as alimony and contributed it to the pirate syndicate. Now she awaits her profit.

"Piracy related business has become the main profitable economic activity in our area and as locals we depend on their output," said Mohamed Adam, the town's deputy security officer. "The district gets a percentage of every ransom from ships that have been released, and that goes on public infrastructure, including our hospital and our public schools."

As coalition navies fight pirates at sea and merchant mariners dread transits through the region, people like Sahra Ibrahim are the fresh investors who drive booming pirate syndicates. As with other stock markets, greed overcomes everything. "I am really happy and lucky. I have made $75,000 in only 38 days since I joined the 'company'," she says.


Friday, 4 December 2009

ITF gets tough on piracy

The ITF says that merchant ships should not transit Somali piracy affected waters except in exceptional circumstances. In a strongly worded statement, the organisation also asked Flag States and shipowners to take immediate action to end piracy. “Save in exceptional circumstances (clarified later as having sufficient naval escort protection or protection on board), ships should not transit the (affected) area. The risk of attack is now so great that putting seafarers in harm’s way amounts to a breach of the shipowner’s duty of care,” the statement said.

ITF Maritime Coordinator Steve Cotton explained: “There are countries actively fighting piracy and there are owners training and supporting their crews to resist it. Then there are others who are shirking responsibility and as good as accepting its steadily growing menace, which has now brought us to the point where one of the world’s great trading routes is now almost too dangerous to pass through. Today’s statement reflects the frustration of all those who work at sea at the dire situation we’ve reached. It calls into question the very legality of continuing to send ships through much of the Indian Ocean. It is therefore imperative that not only must protective escorts be used but that flag states immediately decide on the protective measures that they must recommend for the ships that are flying their flag and that those ships’ operators comply with them.”

Cotton also spoke scathingly on what he said was an open secret in shipping, "that many of the world’s largest ship registers have provided not one vessel to patrol an ocean that can only be made safe by an increase in the number of warships needed to aggressively patrol and police it. I am not aware of a single flag of convenience country that is acting in this way to protect the ships that are supposedly their responsibility.”  

The ITF statement said that seafarers should not be penalised for refusing to remain on vessels transiting through piracy high risk areas, adding that they had the right to refuse to put themselves in harms way and be relieved prior to such a transit.  "The ITF calls on flag States and shipowners to uphold seafarers’ rights in this regard," the statement said. On a separate note, the Federation restated its opinion that, owing to liability and such issues, armed seafarers aboard merchant ships was a bad idea.

Meanwhile, a Chief Officer has been killed in an attack off Benin as pirates boarded on the Liberian tanker 'Cancale Star'.  The ship was carrying 89,000 cubic metres of cargo and was just eighteen miles off the West African coast of Benin when seven pirates seized it.  Although the 24 man crew captured one Nigerian pirate, media reports later confirmed by the shipowners Chemikalien Seetransport said that the Chief Officer has been killed during the attack. He was a Lithuanian national. Other crew include Russians, Ukrainians and Filipinos.  Chemikalien also said that some of the crew have suffered injuries during the attack.

The tanker's Latvian Captain, Jaroslavs Semenovics, said around six or seven pirates had approached the tanker in a speedboat, boarded and marched a sailor to the Master's cabin at gunpoint. They forced the Master to open the safe and made off with an undisclosed amount of ship's cash. Analysts say that although pirate attacks off the West Coast of Africa are less frequent than those off the East Coast, they tend to be more violent and pose a higher risk to a ship's crew. Benin based journalist Esther Tola told the BBC that the pirates were thought to be from Nigeria.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) says piracy in the waters of West Africa is on the rise, with 100 such incidents recorded last year.  Clearly, the ITF's upping the ante could not have come at a more opportune time, Somalia or not.


Spain to call for EU pirate blockade?

Meanwhile, pirates attacks a thousand miles from Somalia

Reports emerging from Europe say that Spain wants a European Union naval taskforce to blockade three ports in Somalia that are pirate havens. It is believed that the Spanish defence minister will push for the blockade next week, and call for a tracking of ransom payments internationally.

Many media reports had suggested sometime ago that a deal to free the 36 Spanish crewmembers of the fishing vessel Alkrana could be nearing completion after the Spanish PM commented on the hijack on a visit to Poland. There had been speculation that two accused pirates were to be released by Spain in exchange for the Alkrana; this, after the pirates on board had threatened to kill all the crew on the fishing vessel. The two Somalis were captured by the Spanish navy after the Alkrana hijack and are to face trial in Spain. Spain later denied that any deal was on, saying, however, that it would be willing to transfer the two pirates to a prison in Somalia to face trial.  

The last week or so has witnessed new worrying signs that Somali pirates are back in action after the SW monsoons. Not just that, but all indications are that they are now looking to up the ante in a region far beyond their expanded attack zones. In addition, there seem to be, sometimes, additional political and other dimensions to the attacks.

As an example, there are persistent reports that Al Mizan, a ship hijacked last week, may have been carrying short and medium range missiles. Although a pirate in control of the Al Mizan told the Voice of America that this was not true, media reports suggest that the ship had, in the past, been carrying arms to Somalia in contravention of the UN embargo on the country. Al Mizan has 15 Indian crew on board in a complement of 18. Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Programme told a newswire that he believed the ship was using a fake name.

A day after the Al Mizan incident, in the longest range pirate attack ever, a Hong Kong Registered crude oil tanker was fired at a thousand miles from the Somali coast and 400 miles NE of Seychelles. The 330 metre, 160,000 tonne BV Lion caught fire briefly but evaded capture; the long range nature of the attack sent shockwaves throughout the industry, showing once again that the pirate's logistical, seamanship and navigational skills extended far beyond the Somali coast. The EU Naval force Navfor, while confirming the attack, is obviously not in a position to patrol thousands of square miles of the Indian Ocean. "This was the longest range of a pirate attack off the Somali coast ever," EU Navfor said in a statement. Pirate attacks continued unabated elsewhere in the region: 12 in the last month alone. Up to a dozen vessels and 200 crew are said to be held by the pirates presently.

Meanwhile, the figures for casualties on land in Somalia have been rising as well. The country has suffered 18 years of civil war and hardline Islamist insurgents linked to Al Qaeda are now fighting President Ahmed's U.N. backed government. In the last two years alone, a reported 19,000 civilians have been killed and a million and a half made homeless.

A blockade, in fact, seems to be the only solution. That, and finding a solution to the civil war within Somalia.


Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Madras High Court rules on Maritime Course jurisdiction.

Chennai, November 24 The Madras High Court has set aside two notices of the Director General of Shipping (DGS) that sought to limit the power of the Uthandi based Indian Maritime University. Justice S Manikumar was making a ruling on petitions filed by Mr. C. Jothikumar of the Maritime Institutes' Association and the International Maritime Academy. The Court's ruling appears to indicate clearly that the IMU should be, in its opinion, the sole authority for approval, affiliation and regulation of marine courses.

Media reports carried in the Hindu and the Times of India quote Justice Manikumar of the High Court saying that the impugned notices, which were in the form of executive instructions purported to be issued in exercise of statutory provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act, could not override statutory provisions of the IMU Act. While passing judgement on the writ petitions, Justice Manikumar said that institutions such as the AICTE, MCI and DCI were statutory bodies created and empowered to grant recognition, approve courses, permit intake, etc, but the DGS was not specifically created to do so.

The DGS notices were issued in April and May of this year, after which petitions had been filed in Chennai asking that these notices be quashed. The petitioners had pleaded to the court that IMU's 'power of affiliation, approval of courses and regulations, supervision of member institutes of the petitioner’s association and of the petitioner institute' be not interfered with, as these powers arose from the IMU Act. This, according to the Maritime Institutes' Association and the International Maritime Academy, included regulating the intake of students to Maritime Education and Training institutions, Pre Sea and Post Sea training and fixing eligibility criteria for students, all of which they said should be in the IMU's domain.

The petitioners claimed that the DGS had issued notices that restricted the powers of the IMU; the formation of a 'Monitoring and Implementation Committee' (MIC) was also mooted, with representation from the DGS and IMU. The MIC was proposed to, amongst other things, look at new approvals and additional capacities for MET courses. The petition claimed that the DGS was a subordinate officer under the Union Shipping Secretary whereas the Vice Chancellor of IMU was an independent authority. Justice Manikumar agreed with the petitioners, saying that executive instructions issued under the statutory provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act could not override statutory provisions of the IMU Act, and that the DGS was not specifically empowered to grant recognition of institutes or approve courses or additional intake. Doing so would infringe upon the rights of the University as set out in the IMU act, in the court's opinion. The DGS could not usurp the powers of the IMU, Justice Manikumar said. "The contentions that the DGS is a regulatory body for the entire maritime education cannot be countenanced."