Hijackings off the Somali coast have pushed piracy to its highest levels since an international agency began keeping statistics in 1991.
The International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) records in its annual report that 111 of the 293 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships which took place in 2008 occurred in the area. Nigeria ranked second in the world for hijackings.
The bureau's director, Captain Pottengal Mukundan, said in a news release issued with the report that "in terms of vessel hijackings and crew taken hostage, the 2008 statistics surpass all figures recorded by the PRC since it began its worldwide reporting function in 1991.
"This is due primarily to the situation in Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, with a total of 42 vessels hijacked and 815 crew taken hostage. As at 31 December 2008, Somali pirates were holding 13 vessels for ransom and 242 crew hostage."
Piracy incidents off the Somali coast peaked in September 2008 with 19 attacks, according to the report.
The ability of Somali pirates to range further out to sea than before, combined with the Somalia government's inability to respond, encouraged piracy, he said. A Saudi supertanker was seized well out to sea late last year.
Captain Mukundan said only international navies were capable of effectively curbing piracy in the Somali region. A multinational United Nations contact group on piracy, which met in New York for the first time this week, called on member countries to step up surveillance and the provision of operational information to boost the fight against piracy.
The PRC report said there had been 40 reported incidents of piracy off Nigeria in 2008, with 27 vessels boarded, five hijackings and 39 crew members kidnapped.
"The main differences between the East and West African pirate activities," it said, "is that almost all the incidents in Nigeria are conducted within its territorial waters whereas most of the incidents along the East coast of Africa and the Gulf of Aden occur on the high seas.
"The motives for the attacks are also different. In Somalia they are financial whilst in Nigeria it is at least partly political. The PRC is also aware of approximately a further 100 incidents which have occurred in Nigeria but have not been confirmed. Under-reporting from vessels involved in incidents in the Nigerian waters remains a great concern..." the report added.