Half a decade ago, attacks by pirates from Somalia were so common — and so costly, in lives and money — that a naval task force with more than two dozen vessels from EU countries, the United States, China, Russia, India, and Japan banded together to restore order to one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.
Those cooperative efforts largely succeeded, as have recent patrols in and around the similarly bustling Straits of Malacca, in Southeast Asia, where pirate attacks have fallen steeply in the past six months. In 2015, there were only 17 pirate attacks near Somalia, down from 151 in 2011.
But on the other side of the African continent, a new hotspot is emerging. The Gulf of Guinea, a body of water tucked into the curve where West Africa meets Central Africa, is now the most dangerous region in the world for seafarers, according to a new report by the nonprofit organization Oceans Beyond Piracy.
The pirates hail mostly from the Niger Delta, an oil-rich part of Nigeria that has seen two decades of violence as militias fight over control of land and resources. Before 2015, they mostly targeted oil tankers. But the price of crude oil has fallen precipitously since mid-2014, making human hostages more valuable.
The Oceans Beyond Piracy report says that kidnapping for ransom became the region’s ‘‘most pervasive piracy model’’ last year, and that trend has only escalated in the first quarter of 2016.
‘‘In most kidnapping incidents the pirates board the vessel after firing at the bridge to suppress any opposition and intimidate the crew, and then proceed to isolate the ranking officers and engineers, who net the highest ransoms,’’ the report said.
In most cases, victims were brought to small islands in the delta where local militias have bases, and held from two to three weeks.
Known ransoms have reached as high as $400,000 in the region, which is actually lower than average ransoms paid to pirates off the coast of Somalia, which the BBC reported as almost $5 million.
Yet in a video made by Oceans Beyond Piracy, they claim that as many as 70 percent of kidnapping incidents in the Gulf of Guinea go unreported, and all but a few ransoms are paid through secret back channels.
The gulf is a major transit point for cocoa, metal, and oil, and since none of the few pirates who have been caught have been prosecuted, the report says that crews don’t report incidents out of fear that they will come face to face once again with their captors on subsequent trips.
The lack of prosecution is indicative of a larger issue: Nigeria and its neighbors are struggling to keep their seas under control without outside help.
Unlike pirate hotspots in the Indian Ocean, where nations with powerful navies have coordinated an aggressive response partly out of their own business interests, the Gulf of Guinea suffers from a lack of global strategic importance.
Pirates from Somalia and Southeast Asia are near two of the most crucial shipping routes on earth, whereas the Gulf of Guinea largely serves traffic in and out of the countries that surround it.
Last month, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea agreed to create a combined patrolling force, but it will be far smaller than those in the other regions.
The pirates hail mostly from the Niger Delta, an oil-rich part of Nigeria that has seen two decades of violence.
Since the beginning of this year the number of people kidnapped in the Gulf of Guinea already equals the total for all of 2015.