Indian Ocean port security officials and Coast Guard discuss how to combat African piracy

PORT LOUIS, Mauritius — A historic gathering this week brought together port security officials from 11 different nations to collaborate on the way ahead to harmonize port and maritime security networking throughout the Indian Ocean.

It was quickly agreed the real measure of success of the second meeting of the South Asia and Africa Regional Port Security Cooperative (SAARPSCO) is the forum itself.

The Sept. 9-10 conference near Port Louis drew more than 120 officials, who held discussions on how to improve regional maritime security and safety.

Piracy off Africa’s coast was a focus.

“This conference could not have come at a more opportune time, when the world is facing serious threats from both international terrorism and piracy at sea,” said Mauritius Vice Prime Minister Xavier Luc Duval, who helped open the two-day event.

“The incidence of increased piracy attacks around the world, and especially in this region, is very worrying.”

The Mauritius Ports Authority (MPA), in collaboration with the U.S. Coast Guard, hosted the conference in an effort to bring together key senior policy and decision makers to meet and discuss global port security challenges. The attendees also talked about the latest in port and maritime threat detection technologies.

Representatives from Mauritius, the Republic of the Seychelles, India, Madagascar, Kenya, Germany, Reunion Island, Mayotte, Japan, Bangladesh, Italy and the U.S. attended this week’s conference.

Port security experts and industry professionals delivered presentations regarding the safeguarding of shipping lanes and ports in order to maintain economic stability in the region. The conference is the second of its kind – last year’s inaugural gathering was held in the Republic of the Maldives – and grew from U.S. Coast Guard interactions in the region.

As piracy off Somalia’s 2,720 kilometers (1,700 miles) of coastline increases, much attention is being paid to the subject in Indian Ocean countries such as Mauritius. This attention has resulted in growing collaboration between the countries in the region to thwart piracy before it grows even larger.

“The Indian Ocean has traditionally been a quiet place,” says Shekur Suntah, Director-General of the Mauritius Ports Authority. “Over time, however, maritime industry has grown and now there are threats on our doorstep. We will find answers together to these problems.”

Suntah says piracy has far reaching economic affects: cruise ships stay away from the region, shipping insurance costs rise and fishermen are reluctant to go too far offshore. He has chaired for the past year an informal collection of countries called SAARPSCO, or the South Asia and Africa Regional Port Security Cooperative. This cooperative or forum is a follow-on to last year’s Maldives meeting.

According to Commandant Ashish Mehrotra, an Indian Coast Guard representative assigned to another anti-piracy organization called ReCAAP (the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia), piracy off Somalia has increased substantially.

Reporting 111 documented attacks in 2008 and more than 126 already in 2009 off Somali, Mehrotra also discussed general trends with conference attendees. Mehrotra says research shows tankers and ships at anchor are most at risk.

The threats of piracy have spurred Indian Ocean region nations to share information and find strategies to increase the law enforcement presence in their vast exclusive economic zones (EEZs). These collaborations are made easier by existing networks already established by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Through its International Port Security Program (ISPS), the U.S. Coast Guard encourages bilateral and multilateral discussions with maritime nations around the world to exchange information and share best practices to enhance port security.

The ISPS program ensures international maritime security standards are implemented with all U.S. maritime trading partners.

The U.S. has sought ways to help its trading partners meet the ISPS code requirements. As lead agency for America’s maritime security, the U.S. Coast Guard works closely with international trading partners to promote reasonable and consistent implementation and enforcement of the ISPS code for enhanced maritime security in countries (and ports) that participate in global trade.

To conduct this information exchange, U.S. Coast Guard International Port Security Liaison Officers (IPSLOs) are assigned to three regions (Asia-Pacific, Europe/Africa/Middle East, and Central/South America) for worldwide coverage to assist other nations in facilitating bilateral exchanges.

One of those IPSLOs, Lt. Cmdr. Rosario “Mike” Russo of U.S. Coast Guard Activities Far East, had established strong relationships in his Indian Ocean region. The emergence of a network that would facilitate strong exchanges emerged quite naturally from his work with SAARPSCO. Russo laid the groundwork for what would become the group that met this week in Mauritius.

With maritime industry, Indian Ocean region governments and trade partners worried about the affects of African piracy – which can deter tourism, economic growth and maritime safety and security – the conference is extremely timely.

“This is the time to draw upon these collaborations,” said Russo, who leveraged valuable partnerships with the Mauritius Ports Authority to help make the conference a reality. “These discussions are the real weapon in the fight against piracy – the idea of information sharing and interoperability clearly worked in the Straits of Malacca and can work here as well.”

The Mauritius Ports Authority was instrumental, said Russo, in stepping forward to host the conference. MPA officials said they were pleased with the attendance and ideas. Also impressed was Lt. Col. Andre Didale Ciseau, Chief Executive Officer of the Seychelles Ports Authority.

During the conference, Ciseau contacted his superiors and the Republic of the Seychelles volunteered to host the 2010 meeting of SAARPSCO.

“We will review and build on what has been discussed here,” said Ciseau, who rose through the ranks of the Seychelles Coast Guard and has trained in America with the U.S. Coast Guard. “The U.S. Coast Guard has the maritime expertise and experience to assist us and we will request additional support perhaps in the form of a detailed audit of our security plan and perhaps training.”

Even as the participants at this year’s gathering make their way home, the discussions have already had a positive impact in the region. A sound network of information sharing and interoperability will be the basis of a regional strategy to combat piracy, says Capt. Gerald Swanson, Commanding Officer of U.S. Coast Guard Far East Activities headquartered in Tokyo.

“The first step is a venue where we can have these discussions,” said Swanson, whose unit executes the U.S. Coast Guard’s international port security mission across a vast 47-nation Asia-Pacific region. “That’s why a gathering such as SAARPSCO is so critical. The U.S. Coast Guard presence in the region is small, but we have those relationships already in place and it’s only natural to capitalize on them. Regional leadership, interoperability of multi-national relationships will be a means to combat piracy.”

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