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Norway responds to increased piracy attacks

Piracy attacks have hit an unprecedented high in 2011. Norway has countered by adopting regulations for the shipping industry to arm its vessels as of July and sending Orion aircraft to survey sea traffic offshore Somalia.

In the first nine months of 2011, there were 199 attacks against vessels worldwide compared to 126 a year earlier, according to the International Maritime Bureau. But there have been fewer actual hijacking of vessels. Only 24 vessels were hijacked compared to 35 a year earlier.

The IMB credits the fall to policing by international naval forces, onboard security measures, and proper use of the industry’s latest Best Management Practice, such as retreating to a citadel, i.e. a designated area specifically built into the ship where crew can seek protection.

Bolder Pirates

The general trend has been an increase in the geographical range in which pirates operate, such as off the coast of West Africa, and the aggressiveness of their attacks. The increased violence is partly in response to the successful use of “passive” tactics by shipowners, whereby vessels employ barbed wire and water cannons to fend off pirates from boarding their vessel.

“Last year, pirates had to work harder to go against passive measures. They fired more rounds during attacks,” said Haakon Svane, Norwegian Shipowners’ Association director of contingency planning. “Our concern is what they are going to do this year.”

Norway faces the same threat against Somali pirates as its fellow shipping nations. The NSA estimates there are 1,000 transits by Norwegian-owned vessels per year through the Gulf of Aden, half of which are Norwegian-flagged vessels. In addition, there are several hundred Norwegian ships travelling through the Straits of Hormuz between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, and some 2,200 ports of call in piracy threatened areas.

During a general spike in activity in January/February of 2011, there was one attack on a Norwegian vessel per week, according to Svane. There was a 60% overall increase in attacks during the first half of this year compared to the same period in 2010. The combined security measures do help, according to the NSA, but the fear is that the Norwegian fleet could see the same heightened piracy activity this coming fall and winter.

Norway Arms Vessels

To counter the threat, Norwegian shipowners have started to hire armed security to safeguard their vessels. The initiative started this year when the shipping industry sought and obtained confirmation from the Norwegian government that a law dating back to 2007 – which allows the shipmaster to protect his ship by any means – also opened up for armed personnel on board as protection. Norway’s Ministry of Trade and Industry followed up with a regulation effective July 1, 2011 that stipulates types of arms and conditions for engaging in conflict, all of which must be based on a concrete risk assessment.

The Norwegian shipping industry was – much like its international counterpart – reticent to implement strong-armed tactics against pirates. The concern was that the presence of guns onboard could step up the conflict. However, the pirates had increased their violent tactics before shipowners started hiring armed guards. Several European countries are still debating whether to implement the practice. Some, such as France and Italy, forbid the use of private armed guard service but opt instead to place a military presence onboard.

“This does not mean that the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association gives a general recommendation for the use of armed personnel onboard Norwegian ships,” said Sturla Henriksen, NSA director general. “But when a shipowner, based on its risk assessment feels it is necessary to use private armed guards to protect maritime personnel, ship and cargo, then it is important that the rules for this are clear.”

So far, approximately 30% of Norwegian-flagged vessels operating off the coast of Somalia have armed their vessels, according to Svane. Shipowners apply for six-month permits with local Norwegian police based on a risk assessment of the vessel’s planned voyage. They can then hire one of about 170 different private security companies known to be operating in the area, most of which are British-based. One Norwegian company active in the area is Navigare Security.

Military Contribution

Norway’s other major initiative against piracy has been via its military contribution. In 2009, the country sent navy frigate KNM Fritdjof Nansen to the Gulf of Aden under EU operation. The ship was sent to help guard the international ship traffic in the region and help ensure that food supplies from the UN World Food Programme reached Somalia.

This September Norway sent an Orion surveillance aircraft for a three-month assignment in connection with NATO operation Ocean Shield to protect the sea traffic from pirate attacks in the waters offshore Somalia. In addition, Norway has sent two staff officers to the NATO Shipping Centre for up to eight months.

“The sea area is enormous, the size of all of Europe,” said Grete Faremo, Norway’s then minister of defence in April. “Our Orion aircraft operate daily in large sea areas here in the north. They represent a capacity that is sorely needed also in the fight against pirates.”

The NSA welcomes the military presence and would like to see more next year. It is also looking at the possibility that Norwegian vessels can be manned with Norwegian military personnel, similar to the French model.

“We must be prepared to accept a long-term need for military contributions, and also realize that even with increased Norwegian military presence, the ships and their crew must be able to protect themselves,” said Henriksen in connection with the government’s decision to send an Orion aircraft. “The truth is that the situation in these areas is progressing from bad to worse.”