International regulations for the maritime sector are drawn up by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), while general laws are agreed to by members of the United Nations (UN) and other international bodies. Some of the crimes against which shipping operators have to guard are :

  • Piracy and Ship Hijacking : This is when a person or people attack a ship – often using one or more fast boats from which the usually well-armed pirates board the ship – with the intent to steal cargo or to hijack the ship. In recent times, numerous incidents of piracy and ship hijacking have occurred in and around the Malacca Straits and Indonesian islands, off the coast of Somalia and West Africa. Slow-steaming ships with a low freeboard (e.g. laden tankers or bulk carriers or small ships) are the most vulnerable to piracy and hijacking as it is easier for pirate gangs to board. Although ships’ crews have to remain extremely vigilant when passing through affected areas, concerted efforts by the governments of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia have reduced the number of piracy incidents in that area, while naval patrols, armed guards on board ships and more control by the Somali government over some areas of its coastline have also reduced piracy off that country’s coast. Some new attacks towards the end of 2015 have caused shipping authorities to believe that Somali pirates are operating again, West Africa remains a major problem area for piracy.
  • Smuggling : All countries ban the import of some dangerous items such as drugs, or items that have the potential to damage the environment (e.g. many countries ban the import of plants without special licences). Sometimes bans on trading in a particular item may be to protect wildlife (e.g. trade in ivory and rhino horns is banned internationally.) There are also restrictions on importing other items to protect a local industry making those items (e.g. some countries do not allow the import of clothing so that the local clothing industry does not suffer from cheaper imports from another country.) Often countries allow the importation of competing products but impose a fee (customs “duties”) on those products to discourage their importation. A country may charge a 15 percent duty on an item (e.g. clothing) to protect a local industry (e.g. the clothing industry). If someone brings a banned item into a country without special permission or avoids paying the full customs duty on an item, he is guilty of smuggling. The work of customs officers (in South Africa the agency is called South African revenue Service – SARS) and other border control agencies is to prevent the importation of banned items and to ensure that the full customs duty is paid on items entering the country, if those items carry a duty to be paid.
  • Cargo broaching : Crew stealing cargo is called broaching. This can happen when high-value cargoes (e.g. liquor, clothing, electronic goods, and some foodstuffs) are moved by ship. However, containerisation, the international ship and port security code (introduced in 2004 to improve security), closed-circuit television surveillance and electronic tagging of valuable items have reduced the problem.
  • Terrorism : To try to damage a country’s economy, to damage property or ships belonging to a country, or to harm its citizens, terrorists may try to attack ships, canals, harbours or other maritime installations. After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on 11 September 2001, the United States pushed for the implementation of the International Ship and Port Security Code (ISPS Code), a number of security measures to prevent terrorist attacks on ships and harbours.
  • Stowing away : Some people (e.g. those seeking employment in other countries, or refugees) may try to board ships illegally to go to another country. Although the ISPS Code has reduced the number of unauthorised people who enter harbours, and all ships have “stowaway searches” prior to sailing, some even using specially trained dogs in the search, stowaways still manage to board some ships and hide on board. If they do manage to avoid detection and board a ship, the ship’s crew faces considerable inconvenience as the stowaways need to be fed and held on board until they can be landed. Often immigration officials refuse to allow stowaways without travel documents to be landed, which means that the stowaways have to remain on board. When they are landed, the entire costsof returning them to their country of origin must be carried by the shipowner.
  • Trafficking of people, drugs and weapons : As all of these are international crimes, naval and coastguard patrols and harbour police services are constantly on the look-out for incidents of this kind. In the Caribbean Sea and US Gulf, the United States Coastguard, Royal Navy, the Dutch Navy and other agencies have intercepted several shipments of drugs being moved from South America to North America or Europe. Similar interceptions have been made elsewhere. In Knysna, South Africa, police arrested a number of people in connection with the smuggling of several tons of cocaine – a powerful launch had been used to pick up the drug consignment, perhaps from a passing ship and to bring it into the lagoon at the town. The on-going trafficking of people (mainly refugees) from Syria and North Africa through southern Europe has seen hundreds of people drown when the boats carrying some groups of people sank en route to Europe. Dozens of European and Turkish warships and coastguard vessels are patrolling the eastern and southern areas of the Mediterranean Sea to try to prevent loss of life and also to reduce the flow of refugees to Europe.
  • Poaching of fish: All sea life forms part of the marine food chain. (See section 10.4.3. on marine ecosystems.) For this reason, strict control measures are implemented to prevent too many of one species of fish being caught, thereby dislocating the food chain and perhaps destroying it completely. These measures include quotas (allowing only a certain number of marine creatures to be caught by a person per day, or a fishing company to catch a certain tonnage of fish), restricting fishing of certain species to the non-breeding season; limiting the size of fish of a particular species to be caught (this prevents young fish from being caught and preserving species for future breeding); restricting the size of the mesh in nets (this allows smaller fish – future breeding stock – to escape); and banning fishing in certain areas (the creation of these marine reserves allows undisturbed breeding of fish and assures future fish stocks.) By disobeying these regulations, greedy individuals or companies endanger the survival of certain species of fish, and put at risk future fishing stocks. That could put at risk a vital food source for many. Fisheries agencies undertake patrols at sea and also ashore to try to prevent the contravention of fishing regulations.

Sarah Baartman is the largest South African fisheries patrol vessel for inshore and offshore patrols.

  • Marine pollution : While accidental oil pollution may happen following an accident, deliberately polluting the ocean – deliberately dumping of oily waste overboard – is against international maritime regulations and is a criminal offence. Regulations have been introduced to check that oily waste is not dumped overboard, and regular checks on the amount of oily waste on board ships are made by authorities to determine where regulations have been contravened. Patrols by aircraft equipped with infrared and other high-tech scanning devices are a deterrent to those who might want to dispose of oily waste illegally. Other international regulations govern the overboard disposal of plastics and other non-organic materials. Some of these materials pose serious risks to marine life. Seals, dolphins and other marine creatures can become entangled in jetsam (such as plastic strips, or can ingest plastics), usually with lethal consequences.