Is climate change a major contributor to maritime piracy?

When oceans warm, fish die, resulting in fishermen turning to piracy.

That’s the argument made by researchers from both the United States and Macau in a recent paper examining the effects of climate change on piracy in East Africa and the South China Sea.

“There is strong qualitative evidence that fishers move back and forth between conventional (fishing) and criminal (piracy) behaviour depending on economic conditions,” explained the paper published in the journal Weather, Climate, and Society by Bo Jiang of the University of Macau and Gary Lafree of the University of Maryland.

Jiang, who grew up in Singapore, which sits along the South China Sea, told OCCRP that in his youth, local fishermen were often referred to as “part-time pirates” due to their maritime skills being used for other activities when fish stocks were low.

“Piracy is a big deal in Singapore, where I grew up,” Jiang said. “Most people know that those fishermen are also part-time pirates because the subculture of piracy is not only condoned but also organized in some ways by the village chief, who provides material support to acts of piracy because looting a ship can feed the entire village for several months.”

So Jiang and Lafree used satellite data to compare sea surface temperatures and rates of piracy over several decades.

“We only had 15 or 20 years worth of data. But even in that short amount of time, we picked up measurable changes in piracy,” LaFree told OCCRP.

What they found is that decreases in fish production were closely tied to increases in piracy; however, climate change, although it largely results in warmer waters globally, does not affect fish production equally.

“Our results show slow but steady increases in sea temperature in the oceans surrounding both regions. However, we find that these changes have been associated with declining fish production in the oceans surrounding East Africa but increasing fish production in the South China Sea,” their report said.

The researchers found that piracy increased when fish production declined and dropped when fish production grew.

They were also able to demonstrate the combined effects of sea temperature as an instrument on fish production and the effects of fish production on the instantaneous risk of being pirated in two world regions with high rates of piracy.

Jiang said that he believes law enforcement can use metrics like SST as a predictor and allocate resources to areas where piracy would then be expected to rise.

“From a law enforcement perspective, we must understand that the ocean is huge,” Jiang said. “On land and in urban centers, police response times are generally measured in minutes, and often aiming to be below ten in cities and 15 in the suburbs.

“But in the ocean, the ocean is huge; it often takes hours for the police to respond. By the time the police arrive, the pirates have long disappeared,” he said.

However, the findings also mean that preventing piracy can be as much done on land by finding alternative economic avenues for maritime communities when fish stocks are low.

“To policymakers, the question then becomes how to develop sustainable solutions to decouple the link between legitimate (fishing) and illegitimate (pirating) activities?” the study said.

”Can some of the monetary resources allocated to regional and international efforts to combat piracy be redirected instead toward breaking the connection between fish output and piracy? What are some of the feasible ways to diversify a fisherman’s income profile?

Achieving greater income diversification may require maritime countries or international agencies to do more to provide subsidies and job training to fishers in times of declining fish production,” it concluded.


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