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On the trail of fuel oil pirates in Southeast Asia

On the trail of fuel oil pirates in Southeast Asia
The most recent ReCAAP ISC half yearly report has revealed the scale of the sharp rise in fuel siphoning and hijacking incidents in the first half of the year and also revealed some patterns in the practice.

Regular followers of Seatrade Maritime News would have noticed the increasing regularity with which incidents of hijacking, leading to siphoning/theft of fuel cargoes, have occurred in the South China Sea (SCS) as well as the Straits of Malacca and Singapore (SOMS), especially in the last two months.

ReCAAP figures show that the number of siphoning incidents has risen to eight in the first half of this year, compared to five during the same period in 2014, and one incident in 2011, while no such incidents were reported during the equivalent first half periods in 2013 and 2012. In addition, it should be noted that there were also three attempted siphoning/hijacking cases that were unsuccessful due to various reasons including intervention from authorities.

According to ReCAAP’s analysis, in all the 11 incidents, more than half involved perpetrators operating in groups of seven to nine, usually armed men. Worryingly, nine of the 11 cases involved perpetrators armed with serious weapons such as guns and knives. However, in the incidents involving perpetrators armed with guns, the firearms were not discharged except in the incident involving Orkim Harmony where one of the crew was shot in the leg.

In addition, in the incident involving Lapin on Feb 13, the perpetrators threatened the crew with an “explosive” package left onboard the vessel, which was subsequently found to comprise only an electric circuit with no explosives or detonator attached.

While not going beyond its information sharing mandate, ReCAAP acknowledges that there are criminal syndicates at work and has sought to educate masters and crew on evidence preservation so that “critical leads and evidence can be collected and shared with the INTERPOL to build its maritime piracy database to connect the dots and narrow down the identities of syndicates, individuals and masterminds” behind the racket.

Anecdotal evidence from the incident reports also suggest that not only are the syndicates well organized, with significant assets, but on the lookout to expand, with one syndicate even reportedly trying to recruit members from among the crew they were hijacking at the time.

The Malaysian-flagged product tanker Orkim Victory for example, was hijacked barely hours after it left the refinery in Malacca. The hijackers of the Orkim Harmony meanwhile reportedly had access to a tugboat during their attack.

Apart from the usual warnings to maintain enhanced vigilance and producing a guidance focusing on best practices for the relevant tanker industry, incorporating interviews with ship owners whose vessels had been boarded before, ReCAAP has also highlighted once again the need to address the issue from the onshore end.

Meanwhile, at an overall level, the number of incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in Asia during the first half rose 18% to 106 compared to the same period last year and reflects the continuous rise in incidents since 2013.

It is interesting to note how the practice has persisted despite the falls in oil price over the same period. Whether it remains a lucrative enough business under future market conditions, or whether it is just another branch of business for the pirates remains to be seen.