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  • The Economic and Environmental Impact of Modern Piracy on

    Global Shipping∗

    Renato Molina1† Gavin McDonald2 1RSMAS and Dept. of Economics,

    University of Miami, Miami, USA 2Marine Science Institute and Bren School,

    University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

    Version: November 19, 2019


    Maritime transport has been historically susceptible to piracy. Rough assessments of the impact of modern piracy point to significant losses per year, with most encounters taking place in some of the most important shipping routes globally. In this paper, we unify the sparse theoretical literature with data available for both shipping voyages and pirate encoun- ters to credibly assess the effect of piracy on the shipping industry. We explore theoretical insights to account for strategic behavior based on observed pirate encounters, then compile and analyze a unique geospatial dataset to test those insights. The dataset includes high spa- tial and temporal resolution information on pirate encounters, individual vessel tracks, and weather at sea. Our results establish the response of the shipping industry to pirate encoun- ters, showing how the reported presence of pirates along a given route increases both the indi- vidual and aggregate cost of transportation, as well as its environmental impact, with major implications for the shipping industry at a global scale.

    JEL Classification: D20; D80; F14; H41; H87; K33; K42; L20; L90; R40

    ∗We thank Christopher Costello, Javier Birchenall, Kyle Meng, Olivier Deschenes and Owen Liu for helpful comments on the paper. We also received valuable feedback from participants at the Econometrics Lunch, and the Environmental Lunch at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). We also thank ORBCOMM for granting us access to the vessel monitoring data, and thank Global Fishing Watch for providing the data process- ing and data management infrastructure for using the data. We would also like to thank Google for providing in- kind computational support.. Partial funding for this project was provided by the Provost Research Award 2019 at the University of Miami, the Latin American Fisheries Fellowship at UCSB, and the Chilean Government through the Becas Chile program. Additional supporting material available upon request. All errors are our own.

    †Corresponding author:


  • 1 Introduction

    During the late 2000’s, and after a sharp increase in the number of encounters and the degree

    of violence exerted by pirates off the coast of Somalia, piracy became a topic of public concern

    worldwide. Despite this concern, however, only limited efforts have been devoted to assess the

    economic angles of this problem. In this paper, we contribute by proposing guidelines of analysis

    and providing empirical evidence of the connection between pirate encounters, shippers’ behav-

    ior, and the cost associated with this relationship. We show that pirate encounters cause ships

    to increase individual distances travelled with an associated increase in fuel consumption and la-

    bor requirements, but more importantly, that these marginal adjustments lead to a significant

    increase in the cost of transportation of globally traded goods along the affected routes. In addi-

    tion, these adjustments also carry an increased environmental impact in the form of greenhouse

    emissions and local airborne pollutants.

    As pointed out by Adam Smith in his foundational work The Wealth of Nations: “Coastal ar-

    eas, and cities on rivers have been the fastest to develop, as their goods can be very cheaply trans-

    ported across water versus land.” This statement holds true today. Most metropolitan areas world-

    wide are located adjacent to rivers or ports, and maritime transportation remains as one of the

    most efficient methods for international commerce (Fujita, Krugman, and Venables 2001). In

    fact, more than 80 percent of global trade by volume and more than 70 percent of its value is

    carried through the oceans (Asariotis et al. 2017). This industry, however, has been and remains

    susceptible to criminal intervention in the form of piracy.

    Historically coinciding with the earliest records of trade, the transportation of goods and the

    difficulty of enforcement has always offered an opportunity for pirates to predate on commerce

    routes (Gosse 2012). Maritime commerce routes are particularly susceptible because they offer

    unique opportunities for ambush and escape. In addition, they often suffer from the lack of clear

    jurisdictions, which in turn complicates prosecution, or even capture in most cases.1 But de-

    1Historians point out that piracy often follows a well defined cycle that usually involves a group of individuals from impoverished coastal areas that would band to perform predation of small-scale poorly enforced shipments.


  • spite their past reputation and folklore, pirates remain a relevant problem. Official global records

    point to almost 2,000 pirate encounters between 2012 and 2017, with 351 taking place in 2017

    alone. Most of these encounters concentrate in some the busiest trade channels such as the Gulf

    of Aden, the Gulf of Guinea, and the Malacca Straits, and their usual business model is to hijack

    vessels for robbery or capture-to-ransom (Hallwood and Miceli 2013). Past efforts to quantify

    the cost of this problem suggest annual losses in trade volume amount to over $20 billion/year

    (Burlando, Cristea, and Lee 2015; Bensassi and Mart́ınez-Zarzoso 2012). None of these studies,

    however, has documented the causal links behind these costs.

    In this paper, we merge theoretical insights with data available for both shipping voyages and pi-

    rate encounters to credibly assess the causal effect of piracy on the shipping industry. To achieve

    this goal, we formalize the decision making process of captains based on warning reports, and

    compile a unique geospatial dataset to test those insights. The dataset includes high spatial and

    temporal resolution information on pirate encounters from the US National Geospatial Intel-

    ligence Agency, as well as individual vessel tracks of all known cargo, tanker, and refrigerated

    vessels that use the AIS vessel monitoring system. Our empirical results show that a pirate en-

    counter in the past year along a given country-to-country shipping route can result in an average

    of 19 to 53 additional kilometers traveled by vessels transiting along that route, in attempted

    avoidance. For areas with high pirate activity, such as the Gulf of Guinea, these estimates point

    to a lower bound of each vessel having to travel more than 900 km in addition to the regular

    route distance. When aggregated at the industry level, these adjustments can increase the to-

    tal cost of transportation by more than nine billion dollars a year as of 2017, due to the increased

    cost in fuel and labor. Within the shipping industry context, these losses amount to about ten

    percent of the entire total revenue of Maersk, the biggest company in the industry.2 Our esti-

    These groups would then transition to a state of adjustment, where “competition” dictates their profitability and which of them get to remain in the piracy business (Anderson 1995; Gosse 2012). Most of these observations are based on pirates from previous centuries, but the resemblance with modern pirates is evident. At least for the ini- tial phase of the problem. See Bahadur (2011) and Bueger (2013) for a detailed account of the cycle and organi- zational mechanisms in the case of the pirates of Somalia, which resembles very closely the documented paths for earlier pirates.

    2Assuming a revenue level of 30.1 billion, as indicated by the 2018 report to investors of the com- pany. The document is available at:


  • mates also highlight an undocumented welfare loss in terms of global fuel consumption, as well as

    the added emissions of both greenhouse gasses and local pollutants.

    Our results provide important insights that were previously absent in the literature. First, the

    piracy problem remains prevalent and of high importance at a global scale. This prevalence not

    only affects the standard cost-effective composition of regional shipping routes, but it also en-

    courages avoidance behavior by ship captains that translate into an increase in the cost of each

    individual voyage. Second, because of the volume of voyages associated with the shipping in-

    dustry, these individual burdens contribute to an overall increase in the cost of transportation,

    which could have implications for trade flows, and in consequence, welfare effects beyond those

    directly associated with extra fuel consumption. Third, these results also highlight the value of

    enforcement and anti-piracy measures for piracy-prone areas. In many cases, a substantial in-

    crease in enforcement spending would cost only a fraction of the total value currently lost due to

    piracy.3 Consequently, as piracy itself does not capture all of this lost value, our results point to

    clear win-win scenarios in which the benefits gained from not having to avoid pirates could simul-