Yu Mei, the wife of a fisherman in Zhoushan, East China's Zhejiang Province, should have enjoyed her first family reunion in five years on Mid-Autumn Day, which fell on September 30 this year. However, a shadow has been cast over the traditional festival for Yu and her family, as they worry about her husband, Li Bohai, who still remains a hostage of Somali pirates after his ship was attacked in March.
With rampant attacks launched by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, Chinese ships and crews sailing through this key shipping lane have become frequent victims. Against this backdrop, China's navy force joined escort missions in the Gulf of Aden in December 2008, effectively containing the threats.
Though statistics show that the number of attacks launched by Somali pirates has dropped since early this year, insiders note that the threat of piracy is still a daunting challenge for shipping and fishing operations on the open seas, and have called for the establishment of marine security companies in China to safeguard Chinese lives and property.
Li, a fisherman in Zhoushan, went on a long-term fishing trip five years ago and was scheduled to come home in the summer of 2012. However, on March 26, Somali pirates hijacked the Taiwanese fishing boat the Yongchang, where Li served as the chief engineer, in the waters of the Seychelles Islands and asked for a ransom of $20 million.
The pirates killed the Taiwanese captain two days after the seizure of the ship. Ten Chinese mainland crew members and five Indonesians were aboard the ship.
Yu told the Global Times that the Taiwanese owner of the ship could only pay $150,000 as a ransom, so the pirates made the crew members call their homes and the government to raise the ransom. "The families of the crew members are all trapped by poverty. How could we be able to raise the money?" Yu asked.
Yu recently lost her job as a cleaner at a hotel, and her daughter hasn't finished high school. To make the situation worse, Yu's father-in-law fell ill after hearing about his son's detention.
Xu Jianxing, another fisherman in Zhoushan who had been a hostage of Somali pirates for more than eight months, was released last year. After returning home, Xu decided to quit the profession despite the high returns.
Xu told the Global Times that during the days he was held as a hostage, he tried every method he could think of to survive.
After Xu was told by the pirates that the Taiwanese owner of his fishing boat had declined to pay the ransom, he wept for a long time. From then on, he started to store freshwater and diesel, planning for his escape.
The pirates later decided to turn the fishing ship into another ship that could seize other fishing vessels or merchant ships. Fortunately, the plan didn't proceed smoothly. Every time the ship intended to hijack another vessel, navy vessels on escort missions appeared in the waters nearby, forcing the pirates to flee.
Finally, the pirates gave up and let the fishing vessel go without asking for a ransom, after calculating the potential gains and losses that would be incurred if they continued holding the ship.
Even though he came home safe and sound, Xu found his family broken due to the uncertainty surrounding his life at sea. His wife divorced him, and Xu is now raising his little boy on his own.
Xu said that during his dealings with the pirates he had learned that although the pirates were greedy, they knew it wouldn't be worth risking their lives to continue the business.
Yu said that during a recent phone from her husband, Li had said that while the pirates were still urging him to get the ransom paid, they were also asking the fishermen to teach them how to fish.
"It seems that they want to give up their old business," said Yu.
In a telephone interview with the Global Times, European Union Naval Force spokeswoman Jacqueline Sherriff said that the attacks by Somali pirates have been declining rapidly since the beginning of this year.
According to official statistics from the Kuala Lumpur-based Piracy Reporting Center, Somali pirates hijacked 46 vessels in 2009, and 47 in 2010. The pirates once held 30 vessels and 600 people. The ransom for a single ship reached as high as $11 million.
But since 2011, the golden era for these pirates has been fading away. In 2011, the pirates launched 176 attacks, but only seized 25 ships. And as of July this year, the pirates launched 69 attacks, seizing 25 ships. Compared with the same period last year, the number of attacks had fallen by 60 percent.
Credit for the decline in piracy has been given to the joint escort missions by international naval forces. Since December 2008, China has sent 12 naval escort flotillas to Somali waters.
China's defense ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said in June that Chinese naval vessels had escorted more than 4,700 ships, about 49 percent of which were foreign vessels.
A naval officer, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Global Times that globally, the sea area affected by piracy had reached 4 million square kilometers.
"To ensure that vessels are not attacked by pirates in such a vast area, naval forces must deploy more vessels and airplanes, which means a huge expenditure," said the officer. "Some governments, who are dealing with depressed economies, are unable to cover the costs."
Against this backdrop, marine security companies have emerged. Since 2011, a rising number of armed security guards have been protecting merchant vessels.
A retired senior Chinese naval officer, who asked not to be named, told the Global Times that about 140 companies have hired around 2,700 marine security guards. "Shipping companies spend billions hiring security guards," he said.
The officer said that he expects more companies will begin to hire marine security companies to protect their vessels.
"In 2011, the ransom for a hijacked ship reached $5 million, and it takes about six months of negotiations to free a ship. If a ship is held for six months, the losses for the owner could reach as high as $20 million," said the officer.
The officer is now lobbying various departments in China, hoping to establish a marine security company in China, with retired troops being trained to provide security for China's ocean shipping lanes and other commercial activities on the high seas.