Why piracy should be recognised as a sustainability issue

Sensemaking / Why piracy should be recognised as a sustainability issue

Piracy is becoming more sophisticated, with severe implications for environmental stewardship, says Nicholas Walton.

By Nicholas Walton / 20 Oct 2015

Modern piracy has evolved since the dramatic upsurge of piracy attacks originating in the Horn of Africa in the first decade of the 21st century. Its geographical focus has shifted, and it is becoming more sophisticated, attracting skilled experts in areas such as finance and forgery to infiltrate complex supply chains. Whereas earlier ad hoc attacks demanded ransoms for vessels, crews and cargos, the new pirates are able to target commodities that include palm oil and illegally caught fish, thwarting efforts to move these industries towards sustainability.

An evolving criminal activity

Somali-based piracy in the western Indian Ocean became so disruptive and costly that it prompted a coordinated international response, notably from the US, NATO and the EU. Although this has been effective in drastically reducing such pirate attacks, piracy has surged elsewhere, particularly in the Malacca Straits region of South East Asia. The simple ransom-based transaction has been replaced by more sophisticated recycling of the captured vessel and its cargo. Liquids like gasoline and palm oil are pumped off onto other vessels and traded with falsified paperwork. The ships themselves are often recommissioned as untraceable ‘phantom’ ships with new paintwork and documentation, allowing them to circumvent regulations for products with sophisticated and increasingly regulated supply chains. As pressure has grown for greater traceability, there are profits to be made from finding ways around the rules.  


Criminal activity in industries such as fishing, logging and palm oil is largely aimed at bypassing increasingly stringent rules on traceability. These have arisen in response to interest in the provenance of goods by consumers, NGOs and brands, for instance: consumer pressure to ensure that fish are taken from sustainable stocks; the discovery of 800 tonnes of smuggled frozen meat in China, some dating back to the 1970s; accusations that plantations providing cocoa to Nestlé used child labour; and growing awareness of the environmental impact of palm oil production – notably the haze from land clearances in Indonesia that affects Singapore and Malaysia. There are several important developments that are affected by this new type of piracy, linking into wider crime networks and with implications for sustainability issues. 

·        Developments to watch:

  •  Unmanned shipping – manufacturers such as Rolls Royce are exploring the technological and regulatory challenges of unmanned ships, which may deliver benefits such as reduced costs and reduced vulnerability to pirate attacks. However, might the command and control systems of such vessels be more vulnerability to electronic hijacking by hackers?
  • Electronic traceability measures – Although these allow more systematic tracking of commodities, they are similarly vulnerable to hacking as criminals become more sophisticated and seek to realise ways to falsify supply chains.
  • Corruption – These new pirates plug into networks of corruption, for instance officials or companies willing to turn a blind eye to the sale of illegally caught fish or willing to purchase stolen cargos or palm oil with falsified documentation. While piracy in Somalia was in large part a governance problem, tackling this new piracy must also involve combatting corruption in countries such as Indonesia. 
  • Public awareness – Public awareness and consumer pressure is an important part of dealing with this new piracy, just as it has contributed to sustainability measures such as increased traceability. For instance, the haze issue has increased public awareness of the issues surrounding deforestation and unregulated palm oil production, and can help to encourage greater scrutiny of the industry, closing down opportunities for pirates who have targeted palm oil shipments.
  •  Sea Shepherd – Will this criminal threat to sustainability measures lead to a re-evaluation of the extra-legal methods co-opted by this direct action conservation group?

The damage that this new form of piracy affecting shipping in South East Asia may cause is potentially far worse than that originating in Somalia, as it goes beyond disruption to ships and cargos into region-wide networks of criminality with severe implications for environmental stewardship.

Nicholas Walton is a freelance contributor to the European Council on Foreign Relations and former BBC correspondent.

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