Woods Hole, Mass. — At times, the acts are almost whimsical: Not long ago a band of women pirates attacked a cargo ship off Nigeria and robbed the vessel of all its laundry. Often, though, they are brutally tragic: Pirates continue to prey on refugees fleeing Vietnam in flimsy boats. More than 1,375 ``boat people'' have now perished and 2,283 have been raped in the Gulf of Thailand since 1980.
These represent the two extremes of an ancient scourge that continues to bedevil the world's maritime and coastal nations.
The good news is that attacks in some traditional pirate-prone areas of Southeast Asia and Africa may be abating.
The solemn side is that some other regions, including waters off Brazil, are experiencing a resurgence of marauding activity. Moreover, nations now face the threat of other types of maritime crime, notably terrorism and violence related to drug trafficking.
These themes recently emerged from a rare international conference on piracy at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in this sea-scented Cape Cod town. The two-day meeting drew representatives from shipping and coastal nations, as well as from international agencies trying to deal with the problem.
Pirate attacks against merchant ships in particular have declined slightly after nearly a decade of steady increase. Off West Africa (a hotbed of plundering in the late 1970s), the number of reported raids dropped from 46 in 1981 to a handful last year, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), a London-based group that tracks such incidents. A slight dip in the number of attacks has also been recently reported in the busy Strait of Malacca, between Indonesia and Malaysia. The strait has been -- and remains -- the world's most pirated area.
A somewhat similar pattern has held for Thai pirates plundering Vietnamese refugees in the Gulf of Thailand. About 33 percent of the refugee boats arriving in Thailand and Malaysia last year were attacked, compared with 56 percent in 1981.
Experts see different reasons for piracy's decline. Economic conditions have been a factor in West Africa. Hard times in Nigeria have meant less trade with other nations and fewer boats bobbing in its harbors laden with cargo. With less booty, there have been fewer pirates. Tougher law enforcement may also have contributed in some localized areas.
Through a fund organized by the United Nations, 11 nations have pumped more than $10 million into antipiracy efforts in Southeast Asia since 1982. A few countries, under pressure from the international community, have stepped-up policing efforts. Thailand now uses three small surveillance aircraft and nine patrol boats and trawlers to police its territorial waters. One result has been nine convictions of Thai pirates in the past year.
Yet all is far from well on the world's waterways. For one thing, many believe the problem is much worse then publicity-shy shippers are willing to admit. For another, the ``atrocious'' attacks against refugees continue to be overlooked, experts say. Close to 2,000 refugees are still fleeing Vietnam each month. In the first three months of this year, 21 refugees have been killed, 26 abducted, and 17 raped in Thai waters alone. ``Despite the smaller numbers, the problem persists,'' says Birabhongse Kasemsri, Thailand's ambassador to the UN.
Moreover, in recent months raids have shifted somewhat from Thai to Malaysian waters, where less policing is going on. ``This is the most serious and severe of all the piracy problems we face in the world,'' says Harry Blaney, a State Department official.
Nor are these the only concerns. In the past 18 months, there has been an upsurge in the number of attacks against cargo ships off Brazil. Pirates have also been preying on more yachts in the Caribbean, some of them looking for drugs. Terrorism -- attacks for political rather than economic reasons -- has been rare at sea. But experts contend it can no longer be overlooked.
Today's pirates don't fit the stereotype of swashbuckling opportunists who swoop down on ships cruising the high seas. Most attacks, in fact, occur in harbors or territorial waters where ships are either anchored or moving slowly through narrow channels. A typical raid off West Africa involves 20 to 30 pirates in canoes. Armed with machetes, they board the ships at night and hold the crew at bay. Brandishing sticks and knives, Singapore pirates usually travel in groups of three to five and use high-speed boats that allow them to overtake moving vessels. They have been known to attack everything from small merchant ships to oil tankers.
The raids on refugees, however, often occurring in open seas. Many nations lack resources to patrol the 12 miles of ocean that make up their territorial waters, much less the 120,000-square-miles of the Gulf of Thailand.
``Some countries have no marine policing abilities at all,'' says Eric Ellen, director of the International Maritime Bureau. Many experts see the need for more cooperation among governments on jurisdiction and extradition in such cases. Other ways suggested to thwart piracy:
Attack the refugee problem at its ``root cause'' by cajoling Vietnam to expand the legal and orderly departure of people.
Encourage rescue of refugees before they get into pirate waters. Programs have been set up through the UN and other agencies to reimburse shippers for costs incurred during rescue missions and to take care of resettlement questions.
Establish better ``intelligence gathering'' and early warning among nations on pirate problem areas.
More training of crew members on how to deal with pirates -- and of law-enforcement agencies on how to track them down.