This morning the BBC had news that the MV Arctic Sea may have been hijacked in the Baltic and sailed through the Straits of Dover before vanishing. There is probably less to this than meets the eye – for all the speculation of pirates and illegal arms transfers, this looks like a commercial dispute being solved using Russian traditional law and custom. But it raises a more general point.
Summary goes something like this:
23 July: MV Arctic Sea leaves Finland with cargo of timber, bound for Bejaia, Algeria.
24 July: Off Oland in the Baltic, it is reportedly boarded by 10 armed men representing themselves as anti-drug police; they damage the ship’s radios before leaving later the same day. (According to Tass, that is.)
29 July: It contacts British coastguard before passing through the Dover Strait.
30 July: Last beacon contact with the MV Arctic Sea locates it in the Atlantic off Brest – this is confirmed shortly thereafter by a Portuguese naval patrol aircraft.
3 August: Interpol warns the coastguard that the vessel had been hijacked in the Baltic, and they should be alert when it passes through the Channel.
3-4 August: MV Arctic Sea should have passed the Straits of Gibraltar en route to Bejaia – it is not spotted doing so.
4 August: MV Arctic Sea is due to arrive at Bejaia. It doesn’t.
It’s difficult to realise just how ungoverned the seas are. The international shipping business generally settles its disputes by mutual agreement under English law, but that leaves them to govern themselves under any legal system they choose (the flag of convenience system). Even in theoretically regulated industries like fishing, quotas are routinely broken – not that the quotas are set at any realistic level for conserving stocks anyway – and fishing grounds literally scraped bare. There’s more or less no point to calling for a better European fishing policy now.
The most eyecatching threats from the ungoverned seas are piracy and terrorism. But maritime terrorism hasn’t really made it on to the high seas, presumably because of the complexity of a modern ship and the startling technical ineptitude of the average modern terrorist, and piracy is a minor irritant (and, in Somalia, a chance for the West’s navies to feel useful). Meanwhile, controlling smuggling, of people or drugs, is little more than a joke given the sheer volume of trade that flows through the world’s container ports every day. But much could still be done on pollution emissions, on safety standards and crew welfare, and even on maritime security, and Europe, as the world’s biggest economy and biggest overseas trader, is in an ideal place to do it. Too much of the sea surrounding Europe is exploited but not controlled, and this attitude needs to be overhauled – if necessary by a significant geographical expansion of the powers of nations under the law of the sea.