/ 5 November 2010

Piracy puts Seychelles in hot water

Piracy Puts Seychelles In Hot Water

Written in English, alongside a prayer from the Qur’an in Arabic, on the prow of the 4m-long skiff is a phone and fax number. It even has an address. “PO Box 5529 Dubai — Inshore fishing vessels.”

It’s not what you’d expect to find on a Somali pirate boat. But then, until last year, the Seychelles was the last place you would expect to find Somali pirates.

“They buy them from Dubai,” said Lieutenant Colonel Michael Rosette, looking over the collection of Somali pirate boats the Seychelles coast guard he commands has captured in the past year.

“They don’t look like much. But they can make speeds of more than 20 knots. They come fast, firing AK-47s and RPGs, which allows them to put up ladders on the side of ships and board.”

Before 2009 there were no attacks on Seychelles-owned vessels by Somali pirates. Last year there were two, with one pirate vessel coming within 15km of the Indian Ocean archipelago’s main island, Mahe.

Bad season on its way
And now that the winter trade winds are over and the seas have turned calmer, he expects a lot more in the following months. “It’s going to be a bad season.”

With up to $12-million in ransoms now been paid for big oil tankers, piracy has never been more lucrative. That makes the job of Rosette and the 100-strong Seychelles coast guard more difficult than ever.

They have just two fishery patrol boats at their disposal and one of them, the Italian-built Andromache, is 28 years old.

This wasn’t much of a problem up until last year, when the coast guard’s main job was to protect the valuable fishing grounds around the country’s 1,3-million square kilometres of territorial waters from illegal trawling. The Seychelles boasts the third-largest tuna stocks in the world. But as international navies worked to rid the shipping canals of pirates around the Gulf of Aden between Yemen and Somalia, pirates have chosen to move south and east of their traditional hunting grounds. And that’s turned the Seychelles into a hub for anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.

“We used to have, maybe, one international naval vessel a month,” said Rosette. “Now, so many.”

Docked at the harbour
A Spanish frigate is docked just off the main port of Victoria and at night a United States navy battle group with an aircraft carrier docks in the harbour.

Meanwhile, Eunavfor, the European Union’s naval force for Somalia, has provided fishing patrol aircraft and has begun using the Seychelles as the new hub for anti-piracy operations.

The Seychelles has welcomed this extra international assistance.

Putting out the Andromache for a week’s patrol costs €100 000, a huge burden for a middle-income country where the annual police budget is €1,5-million.

Toll on resources
The problem is taking an additional toll on the country’s resources.

For one, the Seychelles has a lack of prison space and experienced investigators to deal with the arrest and handing over of suspected pirates to the proper authorities.

More importantly, after many years of overvaluing the local rupee, the currency was floated in 2008 when the country entered an International Monetary Fund programme.

Coming on the back of oil and gas shocks and a severe foreign currency shortage, it has hit its principal tax earners hard.

About 98% of hard currency earnings on the 115-island archipelago comes from tourism and fishing.

Drop in revenue
Last year fishery revenue was down 85% based on yield, while tourism revenue fell 20%.

The global recession has probably had an impact. But locals also said that cruise liners, which can bring close to 2 000 visitors at a time, have stopped docking in Victoria port.

“It is a huge burden” said Home Affairs Minister Joel Morgan. “Especially when we are undergoing an IMF programme. It has affected our GDP by 4% and port revenue, which comes from harbourage and giving fuel to ships, is down 30%.

“We have modernised our laws on piracy and are working to get more experienced investigators to deal with the problem. But we need budget support for fuel and equipment in the coast guard because we are the only country in the region putting out a 24-hour service. We are doing as much as we can — but we need help.”