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Senior Correspondent

Here’s a rare piece of good news on the international fight against crime: on the high seas, the good guys are winning.

Although the fight against pirates is not over, 2012 saw the lowest number of ships attacked in five years. And for the first time in many years, not a single private yacht fell prey to pirates anywhere in the world – a heartening statistic for those who are thinking of spending their golden years sailing the seven seas.

The decline of maritime piracy, for years one of the fastest-growing illicit businesses in the world, is documented in the latest annual report of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which runs a round-the-clock piracy reporting center based in Kuala Lumpur. According to the IMB, pirates attacked 297 ships last year (down from 439 in 2011) and succeeded in hijacking 28. That translates into a success rate of less than 10 percent, compared with around 50 percent in 2008.

Back in 2008, the prospect of gaining the upper hand over pirates looked so bleak that the then commander of the U.S. navy’s Fifth Fleet, William Gortney, remarked in exasperation that “There is no reason not to be a pirate. The vessel I’m trying to pirate, they won’t shoot at me. I’m going to get my money." Even pirates who were intercepted, Gortney said, had little to fear. “They won’t arrest me because there’s no place to try me.”

At the time, experts on international crime described maritime piracy as exhibit A of a business model with sky-high rewards and minimal risk. It was particularly attractive for sea raiders operating from ports in impoverished, lawless Somalia who attacked vessels in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. But the risk-reward ratio has shrunk so dramatically that one of the most notorious Somali pirates, Mohamed Abdi Hassan, announced his retirement in January.

He was reported to have been the key figure in two of the most spectacular hijackings in modern times – the capture of the Saudi-owned supertanker Sirius Star, released for a ransom of several million dollars in 2009, and the capture in the same year MV Faina, a freighter carrying 33 Russian-made T-72 tanks. The pirates held it for more than four months and were paid around $3 million for its release.

What caused the piracy tide to turn? One of several reasons was an unwritten agreement between major naval forces to end the practice of “catch and release” under which most pirates captured by naval vessels were let go because of a thicket of laws, regulations and jurisdictional ambiguities. Military reluctance to act prompted ship owners to launch a major advertising campaign in 2011 noting that “2,000 Somali pirates are hijacking the world’s economy.”

In half-page advertisements in leading U.S., European and Asian newspapers, the ship owners complained that “even when caught red-handed, 80 percent of pirates are released to attack again.”

That is no longer true. United Nations figures show that hundreds of Somalis are behind bars in 20 countries, either serving prison sentences or awaiting trial. In 2011, a court in Norfolk, Virginia, handed out life imprisonment to Somalis convicted of hijacking an American yacht and murdering four Americans.

But perhaps the most important milestone in the fight against maritime pirates was a policy change by the U.S., Britain and the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the U.N. agency responsible for maritime safety. All three had been staunchly opposed to armed security guards aboard commercial vessels and reversed course late in 2011.

That change was a tacit admission of the fact that no vessel carrying armed guards has been seized.

With cuts in military budgets on the horizon in the United States and elsewhere, the International Maritime Bureau worries that multinational patrols of endangered sea lanes will be cut back. After a slow start, anti-piracy patrols have involved warships from the U.S., the European Union, China, Japan, Russia and India. Even the Iranian navy has sent vessels. 

“The continued presence of the navies is vital to ensuring that Somali piracy remains low,” IMB Director Pottengal Mukundan said on releasing his bureau’s latest report. “This progress could easily be reversed if naval vessels are withdrawn from the area.”

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