Climate Change & Maritime Piracy: A Troubling Connection

by | Oct 14, 2023 | Climate Change

Home » Climate Change » Climate Change & Maritime Piracy: A Troubling Connection

Climate change is increasing the likelihood of catastrophic weather, causing food shortages, and endangering the existence of several species.  And as if all that weren’t enough, it’s now causing pirates to terrorize the world’s coasts and seas. Rising water temperatures have a complicated impact on maritime crime. This article will shed light on the troubling connection between climate change and maritime piracy.

What Is Maritime Piracy?

Maritime piracy is a complex phenomenon that includes various criminal acts (e.g., theft, robbery, kidnapping) and modes of operation (e.g., powerful armed attacks, executives, use of boats, and mother ships). Their primary targets are the products carried on the ship, the crew’s belongings, and the ship itself. These characteristics may alter across time and space. Examining the evolution and idiosyncrasies of this problem in various places can aid in identifying regularities and implementing more effective countermeasures.

Piracy on the high seas has been a problem since the dawn of civilization. Because of a significant increase in recorded attacks during the 1980s, maritime piracy has returned as an international phenomenon. National governments, ship owners, and trade firms are concerned about the safety of marine routes because their vessels risk being plundered of their cargo or seized for ransom.

How Are Climate Change and Maritime Piracy Related?

Piracy is a global problem that affects countries such as Indonesia, Somalia, and Nigeria. As many of the skills required for employment in the fishing sector are easily transferable to piracy, it is relatively rare for fishermen to switch to piracy as a secondary source of income. According to studies, poor local fishing conditions are linked to an increase in the number of attacks by pirates in Indonesia. Oceanographic variables such as water temperature and phytoplankton abundance—an essential source of nutrition for fish—influence fishing circumstances.

climate change & maritime piracy chart

Here’s how climate change and maritime piracy are related:

1. Reduced Fish Stocks: Climate change results in fluctuating oceanic temperatures, leading to irregular fish migration patterns and dwindling fish populations in certain regions. For many coastal communities, particularly in regions like the Horn of Africa, fishing is a primary source of income. When these communities can’t catch enough fish due to these changes, they may turn to alternative, illicit means of livelihood, such as piracy.

2. Sea Level Rise & Coastal Erosion: Rising sea levels and increasing coastal erosion can displace coastal communities, making them more vulnerable. Displacement and desperation can force people into illegal activities, including piracy, as a means of survival.

3. Resource Scarcity: Climate change has intensified drought conditions in many parts of the world. Limited access to freshwater and dwindling agricultural yields can escalate conflicts over resources. These conflicts can spill over to coastal areas, increasing the risk of piracy and other forms of maritime crime.

4. Changing Navigation Routes: As climate change melts Arctic ice, new shipping routes are opening up in the region. These new routes may become targets for pirates if proper security measures are not implemented.

5. Economic Strain and Vulnerability: The overall economic strain caused by climate change, especially in developing nations, can result in weaker governance and reduced capabilities to combat piracy. An economically stressed population might find piracy more lucrative in the absence of other opportunities.

The Impact Of Climate Change On Piracy: Insights From The South China Sea And East Africa

Researchers examined 15 years of records on surface water temperatures and piracy in the South China Sea and the waters off East Africa. They discovered that increasing temperatures contributed to increased piracy assaults in East Africa due to lower fish output, resulting in a loss of economic opportunity. However, in the South China Sea, where some commercial fish species thrive in warmer waters, increasing fish production resulted in higher incomes for fishing families and reduced the temptation to engage in crime. The findings imply that if climate change continues, its influence on violence and illicit activity will be complex, with rises and declines depending on the individual situational setting and the logical options generated by rising sea temperatures.

Crime appears to be a switch that dims rather than an on/off switch; these fishermen float towards crime if the economy is terrible and out when they can. This kind of firm line between criminals and noncriminals gets far more permeable. These sectors handle a significant amount of the world’s trade. When we speak of the total value, they amount to billions and billions of dollars. So, if allowed to go uncontrolled, piracy can have a significant economic impact, particularly in a few of the tight straits and bottleneck places where pirates tend to congregate. The idea of piracy as an economic decision rather than a personal identity has significant consequences for dealing with maritime crime. The general public views people as either criminals or not criminals.

The Role Of Standby Pirates

This is a case of people stumbling into it based on other chances. And it was a significant part of it. People in piracy-prone locations typically have names for this behaviour. When fish productivity is low, fishermen in Singapore are called “standby pirates” or “part-time pirates.” Climate change will continue for the foreseeable future. Thus, governments all around the world must create policies that take such scientific proof into account.

Most pirates in this region employ the same small, shallow boats that fishermen regularly use to carry out their attacks. The average attacker uses knives or handguns instead of military-grade assault weapons. Fishing for pelagic fish off the Indonesian coast and raiding vulnerable cargo ships in the open ocean require a similar set of abilities and machinery. So if you possess a fishing boat and a knife and know how to use them, you have most of the talents required to be a pirate. Successful pirates can usually make off with the personal possessions of the sailors on a large cargo ship and the contents of the ship’s safe. Their usual haul is between $10,000 and $20,000 for a successful attack. Even after dividing the treasure among five or ten people, an average pirate can make the equivalent of a year’s income for a fisherman in one attack.

The Complex Relationship Between Climate Change And Fish Production

A study of poor labourers in Indonesia found that fishermen are particularly vulnerable to income fluctuations. Researchers discovered that regular monsoon seasons and subsequent storms prevent fishermen from working in some sections of the archipelago for months. Local crime lords and full-time pirates have taken advantage of fishermen’s economic misery and recruited from this underemployed labour pool. Today, Indonesia is at the epicentre of a global piracy wave that costs shipping corporations billions annually.

This idea of economic pressures driving fishermen to commit crimes fits into the economic view of crime as a rational act. Although average fishing conditions in Indonesia have been steadily declining over the last decade, the effect is not significant enough to explain the recent rise in piracy since 2009. Some other more substantial issue is driving most of the increase in attacks. Therefore, the increasing piracy problem in Indonesia cannot be blamed solely on climate change.

Climate change has the potential to be disruptive and is best viewed as a global danger multiplier. However, its intrinsic capacity to destabilize nations and cause conflict and strife makes it an international security challenge. Climate-related crises shift the balance of strategic interests by introducing new imperatives, many of which appear in the maritime domain. These include steps to defend against sea-level rise, humanitarian assistance activities in coastal areas, and the prevention of trans-regional migration, among other things.


In the complex web of global challenges, the intertwining of climate change and maritime piracy stands out as a stark example of unforeseen consequences. As our planet undergoes environmental shifts, the repercussions aren’t limited to just natural landscapes; they cascade onto human societies, reshaping livelihoods and behaviors. The decline in fish stocks, coastal erosion, and intensified resource competition, driven by changing climatic patterns, serve as catalysts pushing vulnerable populations towards illicit activities like piracy.

As new navigation routes emerge and maritime security is challenged by unpredictable weather patterns, the safety of global shipping lanes comes into question. Therefore, addressing the root causes of climate change isn’t just about safeguarding our environment—it’s also crucial for ensuring maritime security and the socio-economic stability of coastal communities. In navigating the turbulent waters of the future, a holistic approach that integrates environmental, economic, and security strategies will be paramount.

Also Read: The Increasing Threat of Climate Change in the World



  • Dr. Tanushree Kain

    Tanushree is a passionate Environmentalist with a Doctorate in Environmental Sciences. She is also a Gold medalist in Master of Science (M.Sc), Environmental Sciences. She has 6 years of experience as a guest faculty in Environmental Sciences. With her combination of technical knowledge and research expertise, she can create clear, accurate, and engaging content that helps users get the maximum information regarding environmental topics.

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