Thousands of guns are being dumped in the ocean by private security companies hired to protect ships against pirate attacks, top security executives say.
As Somali pirates grow bolder and launch attacks further into the Indian Ocean, shipping companies and yacht owners are increasingly using armed security to protect their vessels.
But there are varying laws and regulations about taking weapons into ports across the region, leading some security companies to cut costs and save time by getting rid of their guns before arriving in various countries' territorial waters.
"This is happening on a daily basis," said Richard Skinner, the Dubai director at the security company the Orchid Group. "I suspect there are literally thousands of semi-automatic and automatic weapons down there at the bottom of the Red Sea for fish to swim around."
These practices and others have led security companies and government officials to call for increased regulation of armed teams operating on the high seas. Rogue security companies could endanger the lives of their clients and innocent fishermen by failing to follow proper rules for using force against perceived threats.
"With the increase of an industry built around protecting ships, there needs to be some form of regulation, particularly if we are going to be moving weapons around," said Rear Admiral Anthony Rix, a retired Royal Navy officer who led Nato's first counter-piracy operation in the Horn of Africa. "As has happened in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, there needs to be some way to address the private security industry."
Rear Adml Rix, who is now a consultant to the UAE security company Whispering Bell, said shipping companies risked expensive lawsuits and significant harm to their reputations if they employed armed teams that did not follow proper procedures. But they also risk harm to their crews and huge costs if their ships are captured by pirates.
The Swiss government led efforts last year to create the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers, a set of principles for the growing global industry. But it is up to the countries that licence ships to oversee security teams.
Countries have vastly different laws for the use of force and for carrying weapons on board. The US allows for pre-emptive attacks on pirates, while Sweden will not allow any guns except for a single shotgun on any merchant ship it regulates.
Tim Stear, the UAE manager for the security and investigations consultancy Control Risks, said some companies were operating in a way that put their shipping clients at significant risk of breaking the law. He described situations in which security teams leased weapons from companies that were barred from renting out their equipment to third parties.
"Because of the pressures on the market, that is often what is happening," Mr Stear said. "That is where you can get into trouble. If an incident occurs, the courts are going to trace the whole process from start to finish … If the weapons on board were illegal, it could create claims and counter-claims that cost a lot of money."
Some of the security companies were "being less than professional and above scrutiny", he said. "For them, it's an acceptable level of risk, but the issue is whether their clients are aware of the risks."
The rise of security firms to protect ships has quickened in the past year as the number of Somali pirate attacks has risen and insurance companies have encouraged the use of armed escorts or guards, executives say.
The total number of pirate attacks worldwide rose to 445 last year, a 10 per cent increase from 2009, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). Nearly half of those took place off the coast of Somalia, in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
Ransom payments now average US$5.4 million (Dh19.8m), and the average time crews are held in captivity is 210 days. Ransom payments and the loss of assets and crews are significantly increasing costs for shipping companies.
As of January 29, 33 ships with a total of 758 crew members were being held by pirates, according to the IMB.
Governments have responded by deploying more warships to the region and establishing protected corridors for shipping traffic. Those efforts have reduced attacks in some areas, with incidents in the Gulf of Aden dropping by about half last year from 2009, but pirates have shifted to new areas to find their prey. Warships can cover only a small part of these.
Pirate attacks are now occurring at the entrance of the Arabian Gulf, including in sport fishing locations favoured by nationals of the UAE and Oman. Assaults and vessel seizures have taken place as far afield as the Seychelles and the Mozambique Channel. And captured ships are being used by pirates as bases for new attacks further away from home.