A year after the U.S. Navy launched a concerted effort at curbing modern-day piracy, the seas are safer in the Gulf of Aden. But there is evidence that the success of the U.S. and its partner countries in the busy shipping lane has pushed the problem outward, as pirate attacks spread through the Red Sea and into the Indian Ocean.
"It's an undeniable fact, you're going to push the problem elsewhere. Enemies adapt, and pirates will adapt as well," said Jason Alderwick, a maritime safety expert with the International Institute for Security Studies.
For countries like the Seychelles, an island nation in East Africa that relies heavily on tourism, piracy has become a critical issue.
As the map of pirate attacks has expanded, the luxury yachts and commercial ships off its coast have become fresh prey. The result has been a maritime game of cat-and-mouse. In April the Seychelles arrested nine suspected pirates for the attempted hijacking of a cruise liner, and this fall the U.S. military plans to deploy unmanned drones in the Seychelles to deter piracy by air.
"There's going to clearly be a limit in terms of maritime intervention," said Alderwick. "They're probably reaching the best case scenario in what they can achieve."
Since last year American warships, in partnership with the navies of more than a dozen countries, have patrolled and protected what's called the "Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor," a 464-mile, two-lane water highway through the Gulf of Aden. The approach has been a qualified success. The U.S. Navy says not a single vessel that has passed through the corridor has been hijacked since the patrols were launched in fall of 2008.
But ships traveling outside the lane are still prime targets. The busy shipping route, which lines the Horn of Africa and sees passage of more than 33,000 ships each year, had been riddled with attacks from Somali pirates – leading what the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) called "an unprecedented rise in maritime hijacking."
Rear Admiral Scott Sanders, the new commander of the U.S. Navy's multi-national counter-piracy task force in the Gulf of Aden, tells ABC News his ships have increasingly intercepted would-be pirates before they can attempt an attack.
"We're finding those suspicious skiffs that we know are out here, looking for a target of opportunity, and we're preventing them from getting anywhere near someone they can prey upon," said Sanders.
The Navy has encountered 537 pirates since August 2008, many navigating the Gulf in small fishing boats and carrying small arms, ladders and grappling hooks – equipment used to hijack a merchant vessel. Because suspected pirates have not actually committed a crime by sitting in wait for an oncoming ship, the navies have no grounds to hold them. Most are released, after their weapons are confiscated or thrown overboard.
In April pirates successfully hijacked the Maersk Alabama, a U.S.-flagged cargo ship. The ship was near the coast of Somalia, outside the protected shipping corridor, when it was taken over, leading to a dramatic military intervention – Navy SEAL snipers shot dead three Somali pirates at long range and rescued the ship's captain.