Attacks on ships: Statistics can never give the full picture

piracy infographic statistics

Few crimes are as hard to monitor as attacks on ships by pirates and armed robbers.

The International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre (IMB-PRC) has been collating data since 1992. Its reports have become a staple in discussions on maritime security.

But the problem of piracy and armed robbery is almost certainly more prevalent and complex than statistics suggest. A former head of the IMB-PRC, Noel Choong, believes less than half the attacks on ships are properly recorded.

Under Reporting

Piracy statistics, including those collated by the IMB-PRC, rely on voluntary reporting.

There may be practical reasons for not reporting.

Filing a report can involve crew in burdensome paperwork and costly delays.

It can trigger uncomfortable questions about a ship’s safety record and security procedures.

When kidnappers abducted 19 crew form the VLCC (very large crude carrier) NAVE CONSTELLATION in the Gulf of Guinea in early December 2019 the attack was too serious to be ignored.

In the publicity that followed, the head of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) was quick to claim that the tanker had been operating in Nigerian waters without permission.


Alongside caution about reporting attacks, there is resentment from sections of the maritime community that attacks are recorded at all.

Greg Ogbeifun, president of the Ship Owners Association of Nigeria (SOAN), once accused international bodies of using statistics to paint Nigeria in a poor light.

Speaking in 2018, he downplayed the significance of IMB PRC figures that showed Nigeria and the Gulf of Guinea as a piracy ‘hot-spot’. “I don’t think we should be overly blaming ourselves or feeling bad because some foreign body says Nigeria has now become a hub for piracy,” he said.

An unnamed NIMASA official went further. He claimed piracy statistics were part of an ‘international conspiracy’ to push up rates and insurance premiums for vessels entering Nigerian waters.

Nigerian officials have not been alone in voicing resentment.

In Bangladesh a former foreign minister, Dr. Dipu Moni, once accused journalists and the international shipping industry of defaming her country by reporting attacks that, in her view, should have been seen as common theft.

The ambivalence shown by authorities towards data gathering is yet another obstacle to transparency.


In November 2019, there was evidence of how misleading statistics can be.

Mexican media reported an attack by armed assailants on an offshore supply vessel in the southern Gulf of Mexico.

The crew were threatened and two seafarers wounded.

Violent and troubling as the attack was, it was reports of the build-up to the incident – again from Mexican media – that were more unsettling.

Pemex, the Mexican national oil company, claimed there had been almost 200 attacks on vessels and platforms in the Gulf in 2018, four times as many as two years before.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) added its voice, saying there had been an average of 16 attacks a month in the first nine months of 2019.

A month later, an ITF inspector elaborated. He said ‘pirates’ in the Gulf of Mexico had been preying on fishermen and Pemex employees and that attacks were often unrecorded as victims feared reprisals or were simply unwilling to spend time making a report.

Throughout the period of these attacks, the IMB-PRC reported just a single incident of piracy and armed robbery.

The need to report

Reporting piracy and armed robbery is patchy. Under-reporting is significant and persistent.

There is also confusion about definitions. It is arguable that petty theft from ships at berth or at anchor should not appear in piracy statistics.

That said, the presence of intruders, should always be seen as a threat to crew.

Attacks on fishing vessels, brutal as they often are, seldom appear in global statistics. There is also confusion as to how to categorize attacks on riverine traffic.

The IMB, like the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) and other anti-piracy organisations, is tireless in urging all attacks on shipping be reported.

The Global Counter Piracy Guidance for Companies, Masters and Seafarers, published in 2018 and written by a range of shipping and security interests , has called it ‘vital’ to file detailed reports of every incident.

Without proper reporting, the argument goes, it is impossible to analyse pirate activity or to co-ordinate a response. But no system that relies on voluntary reporting can hope to provide a complete picture.

Ship-owners should use the reports of the IMB-PRC and other organisations. But they should accept that the statistics are flawed and that many attacks are almost certain to have been overlooked.

This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.

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