Security on the High Seas

by Natalia Pelevine, Security Manager, INFLOT Worldwide

The Maritime Security Council’s 22nd Annual International Conference on Maritime Security was held June 16-17 in the magnificent century-old headquarters of the Organization of American States in the heart of Washington, DC. The mission of the MSC, established in 1988, is to educate and advise its members in industry and government on the dangers and threats they may face in the global maritime and supply chain environment. With frequent cases of pirate attacks and threats from terrorist organizations, this topic is more valid than ever. The impressive line-up of speakers covered a variety of important issues related to security on the high seas as well as current global supply chain security concerns.


The high number of piracy cases, especially off the coast of Somalia, has been in the mainstream media a lot recently. The footage we see on television offers no glamor of the Hollywood blockbuster movie variety with Johnny Depp nowhere in sight, while the dangers posed are very real to both to the people on the vessels, the cargo shipped, and the vessels themselves. Most of the world’s oil and gas is shipped through pirate-infested waters. The attacks are on the rise, and average ransom is now around $2-3 million per vessel. It is estimated that this year Somali piracy will earn $100 million, no petty change.

Ships are attacked practically on a daily basis and yet there is a lack of real solutions to deal with the problem. When the pirates are caught, usually by the patrolling vessels (a very costly exercise with a daily price tag of about $100,000), one of three things is likely to happen: They are killed, released minus their weapons, or brought to trial in countries like Kenya and the Seychelles. The latter, also the most logical and effective solution, doesn’t happen nearly often enough. As the Director of Security at BIMCO, Giles Noakes, pointed out, since this form of ‘business’ continues to thrive and the losses sustained by the carriers can be significant, a clear set of preventive and responsive security measures needs to be defined to deal with this very serious problem. Clearly further cooperation is needed from local governments, which at the moment do not always meet the security standards and practices required by international standards established by the IMO.

Terror on the Seas and Its Effects on the Supply Chain

Even though in the past we have seen dramatic hostage-taking situations that involved passenger vessels, such as the incident on the ferry-boat Avrazya, which was traveling from Trabzon, Turkey, and was taken over by Islamic radicals in January of 1996, professionals believe that if serious terrorist groups were to attack at sea, they will very likely target cargo vessels. In view of Al Qaeda’s professed aim of targeting weak links in the global economy, the threat and risk of an attack on the high seas should be viewed as significant.

Water covers almost three-quarters of the globe and the world’s total number of merchant ships of over 1,000 Gross Registered Tons is more than 35,000. Those ships carry about 80 percent of the world's traded cargo. That’s a lot of goods to be delivered and a lot of traffic on the waters. Oil and gas amount to about 35% of all seaborne trade. While global trade is very much dependent on maritime transportation, water has always been more of an anarchic domain compared to land and air and is a lot harder to police, even today.

Therefore supply chain security was the prime concern of the delegates at the MSC conference. Yet, in the current economic environment, some companies choose to minimize their investment in the security component of the business, viewing it as an unnecessary expense that does not generate revenue and therefore can be left out.

Speakers and delegates at the MSC conference believed that to be extremely shortsighted and a major mistake. Ronald Thomason, MSC’s Vice President for Strategic Programs, pointed out that the supply chain is only as secure as its weakest link. It is only logical that if the supply chain is disrupted or compromised, global commerce will be severely affected. Shortsightedness of management in ignoring the security aspects of cargo shipments can result in damage to the company’s “brand” and hurt the company badly economically. The simple fact is that the uninterrupted flow of goods in a secure manner is a vital part of global trade, which can be jeopardized by not having the right data and security measures in place.