Thursday, April 9, 2009

Pirating is a Lucrative Business

In what continues to be a very interesting story, the U.S. Navy is reportedly engaged in negotiations with the pirates that took control of a U.S.-operated container ship. The ship (the Maersk Alabama) with a crew of about 20, was seized by four or five pirates about 200 miles off the southeast coast of Somalia. It was reported that the crew of the ship was able to take one of the pirates hostage, but that the pirates had also taken the captain of the ship hostage. One of the crew members of the ship, Ken Quinn, was able to call into CNN and had this exchange with host Kyra Phillips:

Phillips: Can you tell me the situation right now?

Quinn: Right now they want to hold our captain for ransom and we're trying to get him back. We have a coalition that will be here in three hours. So we're just trying to hold them off for three more hours and then we'll have a warship here to help us.

Phillips: Can you tell me where your captain is in proximity to your cargo ship? where is the -- who was he with? what type of boat is he on right now?

Quinn: He's in the ship's lifeboat. When they board, they sank their boats so the captain talked them into getting off the ship with the lifeboat. But we took one of their pirates hostage and did an exchange.
What? Huh? Okay. I've got to go.

Phillips: Ken, can you stay with me for just two more seconds?

Quinn: What?

Phillips: Can you tell me about the negotiations, what you've offered these pirates in exchange for your captain?

Quinn: We had one of their hostages. We had a pirate we took and kept him for 12 hours. We tied him up and he was our prisoner.

Phillips: Did you return him?

Quinn: Yeah, we did. But we returned him but they didn't return the captain. So now we're just trying to offer them whatever we can. Food. But it's not working too good.

Phillips: Are you in control of the vessel right now?

Quinn: Yeah. they are not aboard now. We're controlling --

Phillips: So can you see that lifeboat with your captain, with the pirates? Is he okay? Is he still alive?

Quinn: yeah. yeah. He talks on the -- he's got one of our ship's radios. We talk to him.

Phillips: So what is it that the pirates want now in exchange for your captain?

Quinn: I've got to hang up.

So it sounds, from this exchange, as if the crew had planned a prisoner swap...the captured pirate for the captain of the ship, but that something went wrong which led to the pirates getting their man back without the return of the captain. Now, with the arrival of an American warship on the scene, it looks as if negotiations will continue to take place for the safe return of the captain.

I found an interesting article on this topic by Jeremy Scahill which dives beyond the normal media coverage of pirates as a randomly striking group of sea gangs. Scahill writes:

But this type of coverage of the pirates is similar to the false narrative about "tribalism" being the cause of all of Africa's problems. Of course, there are straight-up gangsters and criminals engaged in these hijackings. Perhaps the pirates who hijacked the Alabama on Wednesday fall into that category. We do not yet know. But that is hardly the whole "pirate" story. Consider what one pirate told
The New York Times after he and his men seized a Ukrainian freighter "loaded with tanks, artillery, grenade launchers and ammunition" last year. "We don't consider ourselves sea bandits," said Sugule Ali:. "We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard." Now, that "coast guard" analogy is a stretch, but his point is an important and widely omitted part of this story. Indeed the Times article was titled, "Somali Pirates Tell Their Side: They Want Only Money." Yet, The New York Times acknowledged, "the piracy industry started about 10 to 15 years ago…as a response to illegal fishing."

and further:

Take this fact: Over $300 million worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are "being stolen every year by illegal trawlers" off Somalia's coast, forcing the fishing industry there into a state of virtual non-existence. But it isn't just the theft of
seafood. Nuclear dumping has polluted the environment. "In 1991, the government
of Somalia collapsed," wrote Johann Hari in
The Independent. "Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since -- and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country's food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas."

It seems as though pirating has become a more lucrative business venture than fishing. From the Washington Post article I initially reference above:

Last year, private shipping companies paid roughly $150 million in ransom to pirates

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