CASTINE, Maine — In reality, only one-third of 1 percent of all seagoing vessels are attacked by pirates, but the threat of an attack remains constant, particularly in certain waters.
Experts in the areas of piracy and maritime security discussed the latest trends during a panel discussion on SaturdaWomen y at the third annual on the Water conference, the first to be held at Maine Maritime Academy.
“Companies certainly think twice before going through certain areas because they don’t want their ships to be a target of opportunity,” said Tom Rothrauff, president of Trident Group, a Virginia Beach, Va.-based maritime security firm made up mostly of former Navy SEALs. “Our role has been to develop a better knowledge of the [piracy] network and communicate that intel.”
MMA trains students for careers as maritime engineers or as navigators, all of whom must spend hours on the water as part of their training. The school’s training vessel, the State of Maine, embarks every spring from Castine for a 60-day cruise. The destinations vary from year to year, but security is always an important lesson imparted during the training cruises.
Although pirate attacks are rare, they do happen, and they happen most often in the waters off the Horn of Africa, especially in the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen, which happens to be one of the busiest waterways in the world.
One recent attempted hijacking occurred when four Somali pirates boarded the Maersk Alabama, a U.S. cargo ship carrying humanitarian relief supplies, a few hundred miles off the African coast in April. The Alabama’s captain was taken hostage during the attack. The ordeal ended when Navy SEAL snipers shot and killed three of the pirates.
Kevin Speers, one of the panelists Saturday, works in public affairs for Maersk Line Limited of Norfolk, Va., and recalled that attack. He said one of the biggest challenges was getting information to the public without jeopardizing any negotiations with the pirates.
“The media presence can be strong,” he said. “You have to move quickly to manage the message.”
In most cases, Speers said, mariners should avoid conversations with the media, but if they do talk, “the message needs to be safety,” he said.
Owen Doherty, director of the Office of Security for the federal Maritime Administration, was the third member of the panel on Saturday. He talked about recent cooperation between federal agencies and international partners to stem the increase in piracy. In 2008, there were 111 attacks and 42 vessel seizures in the Gulf of Aden. Of the 815 hostages taken in those attacks, four were killed, and 14 are missing and presumed dead. Doherty said the statistics in 2009 are lower so far, but Rothrauff pointed out that not all attacks are reported, so the numbers could be soft.
The overall theme of the panel was prevention first. The more steps that are taken in anticipation of an attack, the less likely pirates will be to gravitate toward a secure vessel.
The Women on the Water conference was held from Thursday through Saturday at MMA and drew dozens of mariners to Castine from the six other maritime colleges across the country.