Dr Lynn Simpson continues her series on the livestock trades by looking at the risks posed by piracy.
Call me picky, but I hate pirates. They don’t look like Johnny Depp and they are not loveable rogues. They are violent, armed and drugged criminals. They scare the crap out of me!
Traversing through the Internationally Recognized Transit Corridor (IRTC), which runs between Somalia and Yemen has been my greatest area of pirate concern.
Seafarers behave differently there. Regardless of bravado displayed, all are worried.
We were briefed each day of the most recent attacks, and on some occasions you could hear another ship’s distress call over our radio as they were being attacked and fired upon. During these incidents ‘you could hear a pin drop’, everyone listened. Horribly, sometimes these radio calls went quiet, and that ship could be seen on radar changing course for Somalia. Hijacked and terrified.
If we are lucky our ship’s operators had us join a counter-piracy convoy of warships. These ships are from the EU, NATO or the CTF and they escort us through the highest risk area.
Another option is to pick up dedicated pirate guards who provide an armed presence, surveillance and help implement proper security measures.
The less popular and more ignorant option is to run the gauntlet with neither.
I’ve had captains try to convince me that there is a conspiracy theory, and if we have guards onboard, the pirates have already received their ‘cut’ of the fee so we are safe. This ignorance is how they justify poor security measures such as only tying hose nozzles onto railings that are not connected to hoses, not doing adequate drills and ignoring cautionary information from the counter piracy warships in the region thus putting the crew at great risk.
We’re advised to sail with our lights off to make us harder to be seen, except as livestock carriers we generally look like a floating apartment building where everyone is scared of the dark as all our lights are on 24 hours a day. We glow for miles!
This makes pirate watch difficult as the lookouts are often blinded by our lights when looking into the dark for the wake of approaching skiffs.
This is a shady and busy neighbourhood. Skiffs and dhows constantly crossing the IRTC between Africa and the Arabian Peninsular could be innocent fishermen, smugglers of either people, weapons, drugs; or pirates disguised as one of the above, usually as fishermen.
These ships have large blind spots and are difficult to protect, as such we do drills and have contingency plans to help save the crews. This is common knowledge to seafarers who travel this region. What about the live animals onboard? Well, they are not only on their own if we get attacked. But the noise on deck from the actual animals, mechanical air and feed supply has meant that pirate drill alarms have not been heard by crew working on deck.
As the ships veterinarian and a woman I was in no way interested in meeting a pirate or going to Somalia. This was for two reasons. One, selfishly my own safety, even the pirate guards used to groan when they saw there was a chick onboard, it “complicated things”. Two, I was concerned for the animals whose health I was responsible for.
“Getting hijacked sucks”, so I was told by one of my chief officers who had spent three months as a hostage in Somalia. The ships get anchored off the Somali coast. But they do not get unloaded and cargo stolen.
We’re not looking at an opportunity for Somalia’s biggest BBQ, although we could be carrying 20,000 cattle or over 100,000 sheep or a combo of the two.
What is likely to happen with such a big crew that would be difficult to control on such mazelike vessels is that we would be removed from the vessel and held on a stinking hot beach with other hostages and fed rice. In 2015, 108 seafarers were being held hostage in Somalia.
Meanwhile, on our ship, once the pirates had finished ransacking it for easy to remove valuables they would leave.
No one would be left on the vessel to run the life support systems for the animals. No mechanical ventilation, no water pumps, no feed delivery.
Within a couple of hours every animal in enclosed decks would have suffocated/died of heat stress. The animals in open decks, may get a cross breeze, but would start to die within a few hours, some may last several days.
The pirate’s goal when undertaking a drug fuelled hijacking is to have both the ship and the crew for ransom negotiations. They are usually high on an amphetamine called khat.
Once our cargo has all died, in the heat of the Gulf, especially in summer, the decks would become a deep soup of decomposing animals.
If crew were allowed to remain onboard, we would likely soon run out of fodder and fuel. Animals would die.
On most ships this would make salvaging the vessel a mammoth and disgusting task, its been speculated the ship would likely be written off and scuttled. This would likely complicate ransom negotiations.
Hostages have been assaulted, malnourished, raped, tortured, had hands amputated and been murdered, along with unavoidable psychological stress.
To date Australian livestock ships have been hit with RPG fire and chased but not hijacked. Others have been reported as taken but details are scant.
Fortunately to date no ship carrying armed guards has been hijacked. Attacked sure, but protected by the guards and not hijacked. The guards rock!
Hijackings are currently on the decline due to counter piracy measures, should those measures be withdrawn it’s speculated that the hijackings will increase.
Seafarers know the risks when they set sail. But is it right for us to be putting tens of thousands of living animals at this risk?
In case I haven’t been clear, I really hate pirates and the potential risks they pose to all lives at sea.
For Lynn’s full archive of shocking exposés into the livestock trades, click here.