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Project Background

The end of the 20th Century saw an unprecedented resurgence of piracy.

In particular, the breakdown of the Somali government and the ensuing lack of “law and order” in the region turned the Gulf of Aden into one of the world’s most dangerous places for commercial and private vessels. Piracy is also on the rise in other regions of the world, including West Africa, South East Asia and South America.

In 2011, the total economic cost of piracy in Somalia was estimated to amount to about $7 billion.  Only about 2% of the economic cost was due to ransoms, the vast majority was attributed to the implementation of protection measures, in particular increased travel speeds.

Although subsequent analyses have reported the total economic cost of piracy dropping by 28% in 2014, the most recent period has seen a further resurgence of piracy incidents.  Research from Oceans Beyond Piracy suggests an upward trend in the number of attacks in 2016 and early 2017, the result of a decline in vigilance within the shipping community, and an increase in the funding pirate gangs have obtained through illicit activities.

Moreover, as Oceans Beyond Piracy have also pointed out, while there has been substantial attention on the part of the international community in piracy in the Gulf of Aden, up to 70% of piracy-related incidents in the Gulf of Guinea are never reported, so there is currently a complete lack of understanding of the problem.  In its latest publication on maritime piracy, the NGO group reports that there were 94 seafarers taken hostage in 2016 in West Africa, and 1,921 seafarers subjected to attacks compared with 44 and 1,225 in 2015, respectively.

While the most recent figures from Oceans Beyond Piracy show that the total cost of counter-piracy operations in the Western Indian Ocean has steadied out at around $1.5 billion, there has been an increase in the cost of deterring piracy in West Africa, which remains a significant and persistent cost to both regional and international stakeholders. 

The international community reacted to the rise in piracy in the Gulf of Aden with an increased military presence around the Horn of Africa, and this concerted naval presence off Somalia and precautionary measures taken by crews on vessels in risk areas did indeed result in a significant decline in piracy incidents for a while.

However, the immense costs of these operations as well as the large size of the area that needs to be patrolled has seen a scaling back of the commitment. In the longer term, alternative non-military options need to be explored.

For example, recent years have seen a marked increase in the use of private security companies to protect maritime assets against the threat of piracy. While apparently effective, these companies often act in a legal grey area, and the risk of escalation is immense. Just how dangerous the use of potentially lethal force in maritime scenarios can be was tragically highlighted when two Italian marine security guards shot and killed two Indian fishermen they mistook for pirates.

All of the above indicate a need for further research focusing on a number of issues:-

  • There is a need to explore non-lethal options for combatting pirate attacks
  • Even the non-lethal options, when used inappropriately, can be dangerous, so a thorough study of effective countermeasures should be made
  • In all cases, early warning is crucial, and improvements over current systems are vital

IPATCH is addressing all of these issues


The Growing Threat of Maritime Piracy

An International Problem

Modern piracy is here to stay. The end of the 20th Century saw an unprecedented resurgence of piracy, in particular in the Gulf of Aden due to the breakdown of the Somali government and the ensuing lack of "law and order" in the region.

More recently, a piracy "hotspot" has emerged in West Africa, where the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea is seeing a spike in the number of attacks. In its RiskMap Maritime 2014 analysis, Control Risks registered a 30% increase in piracy incidents and armed robbery at sea in the Gulf of Guinea. Vulnerable areas include the waters off Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Benin, Togo, Cameroon and Lagos. However, piracy is also spreading to Angola and Congo and taking advantage of political instability in Syria, Egypt and Libya. Beyond these areas, piracy remains a threat from India and Indonesia to Peru and the Philippines.

Cost of Piracy

In 2011, the total economic cost of piracy in Somalia was estimated at about $7 billion. More importantly, 35 seafarers died as a result of pirate captivity, and more than 1,200 were held hostage for an average period of 8 months.

The more recent phenomenon of tanker hijackings, which has spread to the waters of Nigeria, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, and Angola, has resulted in financial losses for regional states and the maritime and petroleum industries. Port authorities in Benin reported a 70% drop in maritime traffic after pirates snatched a dozen tankers from the country’s waters in 2010 and 2011. Underwriters from the Joint War Committee now include the littorals of Nigeria, Benin and Togo as high-risk areas where additional insurance premiums apply.

Piracy Affecting the European Union

  • EU Member States are responsible for the control of a coastline over 90,000 kilometres in length, bordering two oceans and four seas, in addition to overseas territories and national security installations throughout other oceans.
  • 90% of the EU's external trade and 40% of its internal trade is transported by sea, while European ship owners manage 30% of the world's vessels and 35% of world shipping tonnage - inter alia 55% of container vessels and 35% of tankers, representing 42% of the value of global seaborne trade.
  • In recognition of this, from 1st January 2014, the European Union has assumed for one year the chairmanship of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) with Maciej Popowski, Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) as EU chairperson.

A proper lookout is the single most effective method of ship protection where early warning of a suspicious approach or attack is assured, and where defences can be readily deployed

- IMO’s Best Management Practices

Scientific and Technical Objectives

  • Objective 1

    Collect, consolidate and rationalise historical data on piracy incidents


  • Objective 2

    Perform an in-depth analysis of historical data on piracy incidents in terms of legal, ethical, societal and economic implications


  • Objective 3

    Produce a manual on the use and implementation of countermeasures against piracy


  • Objective 4

    Build an on-board system for the early detection, classification and mitigation of piracy threats


  • Objective 5

    Provide a demonstration of automated decision support for piracy threat countermeasures


  • Objective 6

    Produce a Maritime Data Set to evaluate performance of threat detection algorithms



Progress beyond state of the art

Project IPATCH moves beyond the state-of-the-art by improving the quality of data on pirate attacks and countermeasures, and providing an in-depth analysis of non-military protection approaches. More specifically, the Project addresses two problems which emerged in the review of the current state-of-the- art:

Integration of Data on Pirate Attacks and Other Information from Different Data Sources.

Data on pirate attacks provided by IMO and IMB are collected on the basis of different definitions of piracy and following different procedures.23 Also, data on attacks do not provide a categorisation of the details of the incidents, nor do they include information on the costs of the counter-measures eventually adopted or other relevant information on the raided vessels and on the meteorological conditions at the moment of the attack.
Project IPATCH will gather information on attacks, raided vessels, direct and indirect costs, shipping routes and meteorological conditions from different data sources and systematise them in order to create a comprehensive database of pirate attacks.

Thorough Analysis of the Effectiveness and Costs of Non-military Countermeasures.

Although several non-military approaches have been proposed and adopted to counter pirate attacks, an analysis of current counter-measures, their effectiveness in different contexts and their costs and trade-offs is lacking.
Project IPATCH will analyse the risk of successful attacks in connection with different contexts (e.g. location and vessel details) and implemented counter-measures. The trade-off between different approaches will also be evaluated, considering both their effectiveness and their costs.