New research project on the harms of maritime piracy

By Bryan Peters & Letizia Paoli

Maritime piracy constitutes one of the most serious “blue crimes” (e.g., Bueger & Edmunds, 2020) and represents a significant threat in many parts of the world, such the Gulf of Guinea and the waters off the Horn of Africa. Although the total number of reported incidents has recently declined, troubling resurgences, predominately cases of armed robbery at sea, have been observed in some places such as the Singapore Straits.  

Piracy causes serious and even catastrophic harm to its immediate victims. It can endanger global trade, which relies on the sea route for 80% of its volume. In case of attacks on tankers, it may even cause grave environmental harms. Yet, as both academics and policy makers have so far mainly focused on the economic and trade-related consequences of piracy (e.g., Bensassi & Martínez-Zarzoso, 2012; UNCTAD, 2014 and Sergi & Morabito, 2016), the broad palette of potentially serious harms associated with piracy has not been systematically assessed. Nor have the harms generated by counterpiracy initiatives been explored or such initiatives assessed in terms of their effectiveness in reducing harms. To address these gaps, we have recently embarked upon  an ambitious research project, generously funded by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) and entitled, Piracy and its control: Assessing harms and appraising counterpiracy efforts across regional contexts“.

Project aims and research design

Our project, which we conduct in cooperation with Prof. Tim Edmunds (University of Bristol/SafeSeas), consists of four interrelated work-packages, each meant to achieve a specific aim.

First, we will provide a worldwide overview of the extent and trends of piracy incidents and their harms for the extent to which the latter are captured by existing statistics. We will do so, by updating and expanding Prof. A. Twyman-Ghoshal’s (2020) Contemporary Maritime Piracy Dataset.

Second, we will systematically assess and compare the harms of maritime piracy across multiple regional contexts. For such purpose, we will rely on a new methodology—the Harm Assessment Framework—developed by Paoli together with Victoria Greenfield, which has already been tested on several criminal activities, including Nigerian-based piracy (Peters, 2020 and Peters & Paoli, 2020). In the new project, we focus on four regional piracy ‘hot spots’: the Gulf of Guinea, the Indonesian Archipelago, Malacca and Singapore Straits and Somalia. For each, we aim to construct a “business model” (or script) of piracy, which includes identifying modes, principal phases, participants involved and accompanying and enabled activities. On this basis, in each context, we will identify and assess the harms of piracy. This is a multi-step process that includes a) identifying potential harm bearers and interest dimensions effected; b) assessing incidence of piracy and its harms; c) assessing harm severity; d) prioritizing harms based upon incidence and severity ratings and e) investigating causality (for more information on the Harms Assessment Framework, see Greenfield & Paoli 2013 and Greenfield & Paoli 2022). The last step of the second work-package will consist of comparing harms along these dimensions across the four selected contexts.

Third, we will analyse and compare the public policy plans and actual intervention efforts in and across contexts and let stakeholders preliminarily appraise the effectiveness of such policy plans and interventions in reducing harms and for which bearers.

Fourth and last, we will develop recommendations to improve policy and interventions and specifically make both more effective in reducing total harm.

The project relies on a mixed methods research design. In addition to extensive analyses of piracy incident reports, relevant court proceedings, and other public and private documents, we will conduct semi-structured interviews with representatives of relevant supranational organizations, shipping companies, security and insurance agencies based in Antwerp, Rotterdam and London. We are also planning field work in the Gulf of Guinea region and the Indonesian Archipelago where we will interview representatives of relevant policy-making bodies and at the relevant supra-national levels, NGOs related to the shipping industry and potential harm bearers.

Project impact

Our project adds to the state of the art in a number of ways. First, it addresses a phenomenon that is largely under-studied in criminology but has considerable societal relevance. Second, the project updates and expands Twyman-Ghoshal’s (2020) dataset, providing a global overview of piracy incidents, patterns and harms. Third, it provides the first systematic, empirical and comparative assessment of the harms of piracy (and of harms associated with policy responses) in the four most affected regions and provides the baseline for evaluating current counterpiracy efforts. Fourth, the project provides a novel case study of the contemporary ‘governance of security,’ that is, the practices that governments and businesses use to pursue security and reduce harm, transcending traditional criminal policy (e.g., Johnston & Shearing 2003). By assessing which interventions reduce harm and for whom, the project will deliver lessons that will also be applicable to other crime-related security threats.

Findings from our preliminary assessment of Nigerian piracy

To provide a concrete idea of the value added of the project, we summarize below the key results of our previous work on the harms of Nigerian piracy, As the epicentre of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and the contemporary global ‘hot spot’, the Nigerian piracy manifestation was the obvious choice to test the applicability of the harms assessment framework to maritime piracy and, more broadly, to a non-traditional security threat. Our preliminary research produced two articles(Peters, 2020 and Peters & Paoli, 2020). The first  constructed detailed business models (or ”scripts” or modus operandi) for each type of piracy in Nigeria (robbery, vessel/cargo seizures and kidnappings for ransom). In the second article, we fully applied Greenfield and Paoli’s Harm Assessment Framework and drawing on the business models, we assessed the incidence of piracy as well as the incidence and severity of all the harms, identified the harms deserved most attention and established their causality.

Our results suggest that all categories of bearers (i.e., individuals, private-sector entities, government entities and the environment) experience, to some degree, harms from piracy. Our study shows that a variety of individual bearers, mostly based in the region itself suffer the most from piracy-related harms. These are first of all fishermen but also merchant mariners and passengers, especially on small vessels in the Delta region.

Their harms, though, receive only limited attention in policy reactions to piracy, which are largely geared to protect the interests of ‘big business’. While we acknowledge that counterpiracy interventions aiming at protecting the interests of the international shipping, oil and gas sectors also protect their employees, we recommend that more is done to protect the most vulnerable categories of bearers, i.e., the subsistence, artisanal and small-scale fishermen and their communities.

In other words, the assessment of the harms of piracy and other security threats is a necessary precondition for a truly evidence-based policy. It might lead to the “discovery” of harms previously neglected or, as in previous studies on cocaine trafficking and cannabis production, to the realization that some harms are at least partially a consequence of our policy choices and interventions and hence more amenable to change than the harms that are inherent to the criminalized activities themselves. Ultimately, we hope that the findings of our current project will be used for the definition of appropriate policy priorities in the field of counterpiracy and provide the baseline against which to assess the effectiveness of both repressive and preventive interventions.

For questions or more information on this project, please contact Bryan Peters at or visit our project website.

References and further reading

Bensassi, S., & Martínez-Zarzoso, I. (2012). How costly is modern maritime piracy to the international community? Review of International Economics, 20(5): 869–883,

Bueger, C. & Edmunds, T. (2020). Blue crime: Conceptualising transnational organized crime at sea. Marine Policy, 119: 1-8,

Greenfield, V. & Paoli, L. (2013). A framework to assess the harms of crimes. British Journal of Criminology, 53: 864-885,

Johnston, L., & Shearing, C. (2003). Governing Security: Explorations in Policing and Justice. Routledge,

Paoli, L., Decorte, T. & Kersten, L. (2015). Assessing the harms of cannabis cultivation in Belgium. International Journal of Drug Policy, 26(3), 277-289,

Paoli, L., Greenfield, V. A., & Zoutendijk, A. (2013). The harms of cocaine trafficking: Applying a new framework for assessment. Journal of Drug Issues, 43(4), 407–436,

Peters, B.C. (2020). Nigerian piracy: Articulating business models using crime script analysis. International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice,

Peters, B., & Paoli, L. (2020). Nigerian piracy: A systematic assessment of its harms. Acta Criminologica: African Journal of Criminology & Victimology, 33(1), 132-156,

Sergi, B. & Morabito, G. (2016). The pirates’ curse: Economic impacts of the maritime piracy. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 39(10), 935-952,

Twyman-Ghoshal, A. (2020). Contemporary Maritime Piracy Database [Dataset],

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) (2014). Maritime Piracy Part I: An Overview of Trends, Costs and Trade-related Implications. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development,

About the authors

Bryan PetersBryan is currently a PhD researcher at the Leuven Institute of Criminology at KU Leuven (Leuven, Belgium). He is working on a research project entitled, “Piracy and its control: assessing harms and appraising counterpiracy efforts across regional contexts”. He possesses degrees in the following: MS in criminology (KU Leuven); MA in political science from the University of New Orleans; and a BS in political science from Northeastern University. He worked in the field of law enforcement for much of his career as a criminal investigator, intelligence analyst and administrator. He has published articles on maritime piracy in international criminology journals. His research interests include blue crimes, organized crime, harm reduction and crime prevention.

Letizia Paoli –Letizia Paoli is professor of criminology and chair of the Department of Criminal Law and Criminology at the KU Leuven Faculty of Law and Criminology and a Life Member at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge. Since the 1990s she has published extensively on organized crime, illegal drugs, doping and the related control policies. More recently, she has also researched the harms of

crime, public perceptions of crime seriousness, as well as corporate and sports-related crime. Her latest publications include

  • Assessing the Harms of Crime: A New Framework for Criminal Policy. (2022, with V.A. Greenfield, Oxford University Press);
  • The Nexus Between Organized Crime and Terrorism: Types, Developmental Conditions and Policies (2022, with C. Fijnaut & J. Wouters, eds, Elgar) and
  • Doping für Deutschland: Die »Evaluierungskommission Freiburger Sportmedizin«:  Geschichte, Ergebnisse und sportpolitische Forderungen (2022, with H. Hoppeler, H. Mahler, P. Simon, F. Sörgel & G. Treutlein, transcript).

Paoli is the recipient of the Thorsten Sellin & Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck Award of the American Society of Criminology and of the Distinguished Scholar Award of the International Association for the Study of Organized Crime. In 2020 she was the first criminologist to be elected member of the Royal Flemish Academy of Science and Arts.