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Crew in the crosshairs: Piracy, kidnappings, stranded by COVID

Tragic events off West Africa highlight seafarers’ ongoing plight

Container ship Mozart attacked (Photo: Flickr/Bernard Spragg)

Seafaring ranks as one of the toughest, most emotionally taxing jobs in global transportation. Saturday’s deadly pirate attack off Africa’s west coast is just the latest reminder — one that further compounds the toll from COVID and geopolitics.

Pirates boarded the Turkish-managed container ship Mozart on Saturday in the Gulf of Guinea. Crew took shelter in the “citadel,” the ship’s specially designated safe room. The attackers reportedly used explosives. Attackers killed one crewmember and kidnapped 15.

In 2009-2011, when modern-day piracy peaked, vessels were primarily targeted in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia in East Africa. The Somali pirates held the ships as well as the crews for ransom. Vessel owners airdropped cash to win their release.

The Somalis are largely out of the piracy business, courtesy of heavily armed private security forces and military intervention (see the movie “Captain Phillips”). Lawlessness at sea has since concentrated in the waters off Nigeria and Southeast Asia.

The Nigerians do not hold the ships hostage like the Somalis did. Rather, they kidnap seafarers and hold them for ransom in the Niger Delta.

There were 195 attacks or attempted attacks on ships worldwide in 2020, up 13% year-on-year, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). A total of 153 crewmembers were kidnapped last year, all but five in Africa’s Gulf of Guinea.

“Since 2019, the Gulf of Guinea has experienced an unprecedented rise in the number of multiple crew kidnappings,” said the IMB.

“It is unacceptable in this day and age that seafarers cannot perform their jobs … without having to worry about the risk of piracy,” stressed Aslak Ross, head of marine standards at Maersk, in a statement sent to American Shipper. “The risk has reached a level where effective military capacity needs to be deployed.”

Kidnap fears on top of COVID fears

Ship employees have no control over where they work. If their ship is scheduled to transit the Gulf of Guinea, they have no choice but to accept the kidnapping risk.

The attack on the Mozart will be “deeply unsettling” to crew, said Christian Ayerst, CEO of Mental Health Support Solutions, a company that supports seafarers. “It’s likely to increase anxiety in the seafaring community, especially for those entering areas known for piracy attacks.”

Heightened kidnapping fears come on top of already high anxiety due to COVID. The pandemic has made it extremely difficult to bring in replacement seafarers. International labor conventions call for crew to work no more than one consecutive year at sea. But pandemic-induced travel restrictions have erased that limit.

Up to 400,000 crewmembers have been forced to work beyond their original contract dates. Travel restrictions eased in the second half of last year but are retightening in 2021.

Crew-change curbs getting worse

“The spread of new variants of COVID-19 in Brazil, South Africa and the U.K. is contributing to stricter crew-change restrictions globally,” warned the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) last week.

“Seafarers are currently being severely impacted by the crew-change crisis, with some approaching two years stuck at sea. There is real concern that, under new restrictions, this number will rapidly increase rather than reduce,” said ICS, which wants seafarers to get priority vaccinations.

“We are witnessing a humanitarian crisis at sea,” lamented Jeremy Nixon, CEO of container line Ocean Network Express (ONE). “[Seafarers] have become hostage of the situation and unable to disembark from their ships.”

Late Monday, over 300 companies pledged support of the “Neptune Principles” — precepts meant to expedite crew changes. Signatories include Maersk, ONE, Euronav (NYSE: EURN), BP (NYSE: BP), BW, Cargill, COSCO, MISC Group, NYK, Rio Tinto, Shell (NYSE: RDS.A) Trafigura, Unilever and Vale (NYSE: VALE).

Crew stranded for six months off China

COVID travel restrictions and Nigerian kidnappers are not the only things holding crew effectively or literally hostage.

A diplomatic spat between Australia and China is yet another culprit — and yet another threat to seafarers’ mental health. China has banned imports of Australian coal since last year. This has stranded around 70 laden bulk ships, many of which remain at anchor in frigid conditions off the coast of Northern China.

A New York Times article described a humanitarian crisis for crew unfolding aboard these vessels. According to one stranded crewmember: “One of the guys tried to commit suicide. It’s terrifying. We all are scared.” Another crewmember added: “Most of the guys … don’t come out from their cabins and they are thinking about the worst case possible.”

Braemar ACM Shipbroking reported on Monday that Chinese authorities are “signaling that the ban will remain in place for the foreseeable future.” As a result, “Chinese buyers of these cargoes have sought to sell them in other markets.” There are still 66 bulkers at anchor, down nine ships week on week.

Seafarers caught in the middle of the China-Australia fracas have already been stranded for a staggeringly long period of time. According to Braemar, these ships have now been at anchor for an average of six months. Click for more FreightWaves/American Shipper articles by Greg Miller 

MORE ON SEAFARERS AND THE CORONAVIRUS: Crew crisis is triggering ship detentions and diversions: see story here. Why the crew crisis is a ticking time bomb for global trade: see story here. Seafarer union ITF takes the gloves off and says “enough is enough”: see story here. 

Greg Miller

Greg Miller covers maritime for FreightWaves and American Shipper. After graduating Cornell University, he fled upstate New York's harsh winters for the island of St. Thomas, where he rose to editor-in-chief of the Virgin Islands Business Journal. In the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn, he moved to New York City, where he served as senior editor of Cruise Industry News. He then spent 15 years at the shipping magazine Fairplay in various senior roles, including managing editor. He currently resides in Manhattan with his wife and two Shih Tzus.