Sea piracy is considered a universal crime under international law, but what does it allow ships to do to defend themselves against pirates? The answer is…not much. Ships have to abide by a world-wide patchwork of international treaties, agreements, and individual nations' laws.
The laws applying to merchant ships fall into two main categories: those in territorial waters and those on the high seas. Territorial waters are within 12 nautical miles off any country. There, that nation's laws apply and most don't allow armed crews.
California Maritime Academy political science professor Donna Nincic focuses on maritime terrorism and piracy.
"Everybody right now is talking about arming merchant vessels, but according to the laws of most states of the world, that is actually illegal. They do not allow or do not want armed merchant ships in their territorial waters," says Nincic.
The Maersk Alabama was about 300 miles off shore on what's legally called the high seas. Nincic says there are other deterrents to putting guns on ships. Shipping companies are often opposed because an issue with liability and increased cost.
"You can't just put a gun on the ship and assume everyone knows how to use it. You have to train them, and that means higher wages for the crew and the costs of training," says Nincic.
The U.S. Coast Guard is part of a multi-agency task force deployed to deal with piracy off the Horn of Africa last year. Specialists in a law enforcement unit are working with the U.S. Department of Defense and Homeland Security.
"They are now under one command cal. The Deployment Operations Group, otherwise known as the D.O.G. and they deploy groups like this. These are Coast Guard specialists, if you will, that go aboard U.S. Navy ships to help them combat piracy," says Captain Charley Diaz, with the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard, however, was not involved in this latest rescue of the Maersk Alabama crew, or at least its captain.