Climate Change Is Driving Piracy on the Seas

by AMS Staff

Photo credit: Pok Rie, Pexels

Climate change is an unseen force behind maritime piracy, with opposite impacts on two of the world’s major pirate hotspots, according to a paper just published in the American Meteorological Society journal Weather, Climate, and Society (WCAS). The study, by Bo Jiang, PhD (University of Macau), and Gary LaFree, PhD (University of Maryland, College Park), examines 20 years’ worth of data, demonstrating that years with warmer ocean temperatures see increased piracy off the coasts of East Africa, but decreased piracy in the South China Sea.

The reason is fish. South China Sea fisheries see better catches in warmer years, but in East Africa (bordering countries like Somalia), warmer temperatures have a negative effect on fisheries. This means lean times for fishing communities—which in turn means fishermen are more likely to take up piracy to supplement their income. “When there’s less fish there’s more piracy; when there’s more fish there’s less piracy,” Jiang says. Damage to fish stocks lessened the time between successful pirate attacks, and increased the likelihood that any given attack would succeed. “[This is] like a natural experiment, because we are looking at two regions of the world that have opposite effects. And these two are the hotspots of piracy around the world.”

A Pirate’s Life (for Now?)

The view of piracy as an economic decision—rather than a personal identity—has important implications for addressing crime on the seas. “The public generally looks at people as either criminal or not criminal,” says LaFree. “This looks much more like people drift into it depending on the other opportunities they have. And drift out of it, I think that was an important part.”

People in areas prone to piracy often have names for this phenomenon. In Singapore, where Jiang grew up, fishermen who turn to piracy when fish production is low are called “standby pirates” or “part-time pirates.” This is one of the first studies in criminology to quantitatively examine when these standby pirates are most likely to engage in illegal activities. To tease out the effects of climate from those of other factors, Jiang and LaFree carefully examined the potential effects of other factors—like the presence of private security guards on board, and the regional “misery index” of local economic stress. Holding all other variables constant, they still found a significant relationship between sea surface temperature and piracy.

Photo credit: Bedis ElAcheche, Pexels

Jiang and LaFree were surprised at how rapidly and strongly climate was affecting fisheries. They believe part of the reason is how sensitive fish are to small changes in sea-surface temperature (SST), as poikilothermic (cold-blooded) animals. There are climate change winners and losers among fish,” says Jiang. “Even if there’s [just] a small increase in the SST, the fish are the first ones to feel it, so they are just going to migrate somewhere either warmer or cooler.”

Where climate change is harming fisheries, the economic incentives for piracy are likely to grow stronger as temperatures increase. What’s more, even in the South China Sea where fisheries currently benefit from warming, there are likely threshold temperatures past which fish stocks won’t respond so positively.

“The important question, based on our paper, is how to decouple the link and break the connection between legitimate and illegitimate activities,” says Jiang. “Climate change is going to continue into the foreseeable future, so governments around the world, especially in these two regions, need to devise policies that are going to take such empirical evidence into consideration.”

Global Forces: Crime and Climate Change

It’s not just down to individual governments, either. As LaFree points out, crime is a global endeavor, whether it’s piracy or terrorism. “We’re making a big pitch in some of the work we’re doing right now that … globalization is really important for solving these sorts of problems that cut across national boundaries.”

This paper is the first in a series of collaborations between Jiang and LaFree examining climate change, globalization, and crime—including homicide, terrorism, and civil conflict. Qualitative studies have already shown that when climate change devastates livelihoods, conflict and terrorist recruitment may follow; but criminology often suffers from a lack of complete data or differences in reporting among different countries, making it hard to get the full picture. Being able to use satellite observations of variables like temperature—which can provide reliable data for anywhere in the world—is a major boon to those examining large-scale trends in crime. The authors hope such scientific advances will help counter the world’s worsening social and environmental problems.

Climate researchers and criminologists don’t tend to overlap much, so there is a wealth of opportunity for research on climate change and crime. Jiang and LaFree called for more collaboration in the future to unleash the power of interdisciplinary science on two of the world’s most global and intractable challenges. “From a science standpoint, it’s kind of like the best of times-worst of times,” says LaFree. “Hopefully our technology will be better than the problems.”

Read the paper: Jiang, Bo, and Gary LaFree. 2023. “Climate Change, Fish Production, and Maritime Piracy.” Weather, Climate, and Society (WCAS).