The first three months of 2011 saw piracy at sea hit an all-time high with 142 attacks worldwide, according to the International Maritime Bureau's (IMB) global piracy report.
In the first quarter of 2011, 18 vessels were hijacked, 344 crew members were taken hostage, and six were kidnapped, IMB reported. A further 45 vessels were boarded, and 45 more reported being fired upon.
The sharp rise was driven by a surge in piracy off the coast of Somalia, where 97 attacks were recorded in the first quarter of 2011, up from 35 in the same period last year.
"Figures for piracy and armed robbery at sea in the past three months are higher than we've ever recorded in the first quarter of any past year," said Pottengal Mukundan, Director of IMB, whose Piracy Reporting Centre has monitored piracy worldwide since 1991.
In the first three months of 2011, pirates murdered seven crew members and injured 34. Just two injuries were reported in the first quarter of 2006.
Of the 18 ships hijacked worldwide in the first three months of the year, 15 were captured off the east coast of Somalia, in and around the Arabian Sea and one in the Gulf of Aden. In this area alone, 299 people were taken as hostage and a further six were kidnapped from their vessel. At their last count, at the end of March, IMB figures showed that Somali pirates were holding captive 596 crew members on 28 ships.
The IMB reports that large tankers carrying oil and other flammable chemicals are particularly vulnerable to firearm attack. Captain Mukundan said: "Three big tankers of over 100,000 tonnes deadweight have been hijacked off the Horn of Africa this year. Of a total of 97 vessels attacked in the region, 37 were tankers and of these, 20 had a deadweight of more than 100,000 tonnes."
A number of countries are employing their navies to take a tough stance against piracy. In a recent show of force, commended by the IMB, the Indian navy captured 61 Somali pirates on a hijacked ship off India's west coast.
Elsewhere, in the first quarter of 2011 nine incidents were reported off Malaysia and five incidents have been recorded for Nigeria.