In the past 12 months piracy off the coast of Somalia has soared
Commercial shipping companies are increasingly using private security firms to combat pirates off the coast of Somalia because foreign navies are restricted in what they can do to tackle piracy, security experts say.
Dozens of private security companies, many with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, are now employed to provide commercial vessels with up-to-the-minute intelligence on the whereabouts of pirates and sometimes armed escorts onboard ships.
"There's more interest than there's ever been before," said Martin Rudd, the vice-president of Olive Group, a company with specialist security operations in around 20 countries.
"We have fielded a number of requests for assistance, some of which we have executed and some of which we haven't.
"From a commercial perspective, there's a great deal that we can do to assist people on a short-term basis to transit vessels through high-risk areas. It's easier for us than it is for a navy to mobilise assets for short periods."
More than 20,000 ships use the Bab al-Madab Straits off the Horn of Africa each year, accounting for around a third of global container trade, much of it oil- and gas-related.
But in the past 12 months piracy off the coast of Somalia has soared, with at least 30 ships hijacked this year, earning an estimated $18-30 million in ransom payments and turning the area into the world's most dangerous waterway.
Somali security forces freed a Panamanian ship on Tuesday, but a Ukrainian ship carrying tanks and guns remains in pirate hands three weeks after being seized with 21 crew on board.
A senior British naval officer has urged commercial ships to make more use of private security, acknowledging that foreign navies, which have bolstered the presence of frigates and destroyers in the region, are limited in what they can do.
There are, however, serious legal questions surrounding the use of private security companies to tackle piracy.
Navies are only allowed to board vessels to take on pirates if they spot an act of piracy in progress, something that is extremely unlikely in the Gulf of Aden, where there are more than 2 million square miles of water to patrol.
Somalia's pirates are fully aware of the limitations and have exploited them. They continue to seize vessels despite the presence of British, American, NATO, Russian and other heavily armed naval forces in the area.
Private security companies, aware of the potential legal dangers of opening fire on suspected pirate boats in international waters, say they don't rely only on arms.
"We're not providing security to stand there and fist-fight with pirates or to take pot-shots at them, it's more of an intelligence role," Graeme Gibbon-Brooks, managing director of Dryad Maritime Intelligence said.
"You need to identify the threat, see where it is, and know how to avoid that risk."
Many commercial shipping companies that operate on tight budgets can't afford private security, but oil and gas companies are increasingly turning to private security firms, he said.
While the threat of being attacked remains small - it's estimated at less than one percent of all the ships passing through the region - the consequences of being attacked are high and worth off-setting.
"It's $1-2 million in ransoms and three months in Somali territorial waters," said Gibbon-Brooks.
"Then there's the trauma for the crew of being taken hostage and the potential for casualties. Security is a price worth paying."