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Seamen's Church Institute embarks on novel study of piracy's effects

[Episcopal News Service] For many people, the word "pirate" conjures images of the Walt Disney franchise's "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, featuring Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, and its theme-park attractions. Halloween partygoers don't dress as merchant mariners.

In reality, pirates wreak havoc on the maritime shipping industry. In 2009, 406 incidences of piracy and armed robbery were reported -- 217 of those attacks attributed to Somali pirates. It was the first time since 2003 that reported incidents surpassed 400, according to the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre.

Despite media coverage of marauding Somali pirates and the world's dependency on shipping, the rights and safety of merchant mariners -- the men and women who staff the ships -- often are overlooked, said Doug Stevenson, director for seafarers' rights for the Seamen's Church Institute (SCI).

The Episcopal Church's Office of Communication has partnered with Seamen's Church Institute in producing a video, "Wading in the Waters," detailing the plight of seafarers affected by piracy and how SCI is responding. The video is available here.

"Maybe we don't think about it even though we live in cities that have ports … how much of the things -- our televisions, our Toyotas … 95 percent of the goods we own – have at one point or another been on a cargo ship. The United States' prosperity depends on shipping," said Stevenson during an interview at his office near New York's historic South Street Seaport.

Since 2003, pirates have kidnapped or taken hostage more than 2,800 merchant mariners, and they have robbed or attacked many more. Typically, pirates hold hijacked ships for two months with average ransoms of $2 million paid. In 2008, ransoms totaled an estimated $100 million, Stevenson said.

Studying the impact

To try to illuminate and treat the effects of piracy on crew members, SCI, in conjunction with the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, has embarked on a multiyear study of the impact of piracy on seafarers and their families. The first of its kind in the maritime industry, the study seeks to identify unique stressors of piracy hostage situations, along with immediate and ongoing medical-evaluation strategies for crew members and their families. Desired study outcomes include plans for clinically assessing seafarers after piracy incidents, assisting families during prolonged piracy episodes and triaging short- and long-term mental-health treatment.

The first step is to evaluate the seafarers' baseline stress level and what role piracy plays in that, and to assess those who may suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and how to create a climate in the maritime industry that's friendly to treating them, said SCI clinical researcher Michael Garfinkle, Mount Sinai assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and Matthew Sylvan Research fellow at the New York Psychoanalytic Society and the psychoanalytic institute.

"It's a totally neglected occupational health area … there are only one or two loosely related papers about seafarers and nothing about piracy," said Garfinkle in a telephone interview. "It's an honor and challenge to be the first entity to address this from a mental-health perspective."

In January SCI presented its preliminary guidelines to a United Nations working group concerned with piracy off the coast of Somalia.

SCI began working on piracy issues in the early 1990s, when attacks were frequent in the Strait of Malacca connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans. Attacks eventually subsided there and re-emerged off the cost of Somalia in 2008, making international headlines and prompting the U.N. Security Council to pass resolutions specifically dealing with Somali pirates, Stevenson said.

Somali pirates recently increased attacks in the Gulf of Aden, aka "Pirate Alley," coinciding with the end of the 2009 monsoon season. Between 25,000 and 50,000 merchant ships annually pass through the gulf, a popular shipping route connecting the Mediterranean and Arabian seas and the Indian Ocean, according to news reports.

More than economic effects

Given piracy's effect on commerce, the international discussion, Stevenson said, has centered on preventing and suppressing piracy and on questions like: What can be done to stop piracy? Should merchant crews be armed? Should military force be used? Where will pirates be prosecuted?

"But what we thought was singularly lacking was that there was no discussion about the merchant crews on these ships that are being held hostage," he said. "If you look at the Security Council resolutions, only one mentions the ship's crew, and that was only in passing. It's also difficult to track down crew members who have been held hostage or attacked by pirates because no one keeps records of them … no one even knows what's happened to them. Pirate-attack survivors simply disappear, with no post-attack care systems in place to monitor their return to normal life."

In August, Stevenson embarked on an eight-day journey that took him through the Gulf of Aden as a guest aboard the cargo ship Maersk Idaho to learn first-hand about the experience of sailors who routinely travel pirate-infested seas.

The media focused intently on the Gulf of Aden last April when pirates seized the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship owned by the U.S.-based Maersk Line Ltd., and held its captain, Richard Phillips, hostage at gunpoint for five days. U.S. Navy Seals rescued Phillips on April 12. SCI honored Phillips with its first Courage at Sea Award in June.

Stevenson and Maersk sailors conceived of Stevenson's trip while planning the award ceremony. Phillips's book, A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea, which describes his ordeal, was released in early April.

In a second incident, the Maersk Alabama was about 600 miles off the northeast coast of Somalia en route to Mombasa, Kenya, on Nov. 18, 2009, when four suspected pirates in a skiff that came within 300 yards of the ship tried to attack it. A security team on board thwarted them, responding with small-arms fire, long-range acoustical devices painful to the human ear and evasive maneuvers. No one was injured, according to news reports.

"The Maersk Alabama incident awakened Americans to the issue of piracy, but unfortunately there have been many attacks before and after dealing with international crews," said the Rev. David Rider, SCI's executive director.

About SCI

Seamen's Church Institute is North America's largest and most comprehensive mariners' service agency, promoting safety, dignity and improved working and living conditions for millions of men and women serving in the maritime workplace. Founded in 1834, the institute is a voluntary, ecumenical agency affiliated with the Episcopal Church. It celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2009.

SCI provides support services including chaplaincy, legal aid and continuing maritime education in New York, New Jersey, California and inland on the Ohio and Mississippi river systems, and influences the maritime community worldwide. It operates training centers for mariners in Houston, Texas, and Paducah, Kentucky. More information is available here.

-- Lynette Wilson is reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service.


Copyright © 2011 Episcopal News Service