While the onset of pandemic has disrupted life for many seafarers who either stranded at sea with extended tenure or awaiting a new job opportunity to return to the sea, the maritime sector has surprisingly stayed active throughout the pandemic.
However, certain areas like ship health and security onboard, lax governance and stranded ships with COVID-19 patients have caught widespread attention on an international level.
Narcotics trafficking and shipments of sanctioned goods/fuel from Iran and Venezuela have been at large with increased Naval presence in the US determined to track it down.
The spike in criminal trends and blindsided maritime activities on Caribbean waters, as observed through comparative data have led to insights that actively seek collaboration between states and regional bodies to reinstate maritime security, improve development and thereby, catch hold of transnational criminal networks.
The Caribbean waters are economically valuable internationally. The start of the pandemic in March, until July, has reported a steady decline of travel, both in waters and air, with the latter receiving only 4.7% of arrivals and 9% departures in comparison to numbers prior to the pandemic. Added to this were the concerns surrounding health and safety protocols onboard cruise ships that further declined travels and somehow, illegal activities on the sea did not decline in the same pattern.
Since March 2020, to July 2020, seizing illegal amounts of cocaine, marijuana and immigrants has been at 60% of what it had been from November 2019 to March 2020. Over $1 billion worth of drug seizures have been accounted for by the US navy and coast guard, all on regional Caribbean waters. 27 maritime interdictions have alone occurred since March 12, 2020.
The smuggling operations also included goats, birds, fuel and cash among other things hinting strongly that the increase in cases may be attributed to the economical difficulty during the periods, as well.
Certain indicators often point arrows towards illicit activities, ones that can soon be tracked easily through machine learning, augmented intelligence and advanced maritime domain awareness technology (MDA). The anomalies often include, but not restricted to, using small vessels like speedboats, fishing vessels and pleasure crafts that do not make use of Automatic Identification System (AIS) tech. Another includes drifting or sailing under three knots, especially if engaged in maritime commerce. Ships heading off-course also raises eyebrows as it often means that it is looking for or collecting packages left on the water.
Dark activity, like turning off AIS transponders intentionally is uneconomical behaviour unless logged by the master beforehand. These activities often signal that vessels might be meeting other vessels to embark packages or violate sanctions. It can also indicate control of a vessel by foreign agents (change in flags/ownership) and/or meetings that involve illegitimate transfers in criminal supply change.
The MDA can further place focus on transpiring activities by observing significant changes in the movement since travel restrictions. Algorithmic analysis of vessels can target ‘high-risk’ patterns or pinpoint vessels like to be engaging in criminal actions.
An explanation to increased criminal engagements could be due to a huge number of stranded ships at sea following lockdown restrictions. While a lot of data regarding these aren’t conclusive, it does make one consider that legitimate maritime commerce does not operate in proportion with criminal maritime operations.
Criminals may as well have seen a new opportunity in the pandemic and are taking advantage of the crisis, rising on top slowly. The Regional Security System (RSS) which is a sub-regional treaty-based security cooperation organisation is utilising the combination of maritime patrol aircraft and vessels to interdict crime on waters. The RSS and the included members of the CARICOM states may operate in harmony and yet, analysis and response to criminal trends despite the efforts taken an continue to pose a challenge.
The hope lies in new insights that can help gather an understanding of criminal routes and modalities. This can further even aid to maintain enhanced MDA and response protocols.
The criminal problems on the Caribbean may have added a brick to the burden faced by states currently, but has also opened doors to adopt and implement new technology platforms, work on co-operation and enforce legal treaties like the ‘Treaty of San Jose’.