The maritime industry is one of the largest on the planet, and ensuring operations at sea continue safely takes determined effort. The implementation of maritime security takes both knowledge and vigilance, and is essential to enhance security enforcement without slowing down the timely flow of international commerce.

Throughout this article, we’ll cover everything you’ll want to know about:

Maritime security is a specialized field in the marine sector, and safety officers must employ best practices to defend their vessel against both internal and external threats. These threats come in various forms, and each requires a different strategy for a proper defense. Security risks are not always malicious, but maintaining vessel safety is a constant priority.

In this guide to maritime security, we’ll take you through some of the common threats to operations, how modern officers are dealing with these threats and what the future for marine security could look like.

What Is Maritime Security?

Ship at sea with two smaller boats

Maritime security is a general term for the protection of vessels both internally and externally. The areas from which ships and maritime operations need protecting include terrorism, piracy, robbery, illegal trafficking of goods and people, illegal fishing and pollution.

Through supervision, inspection and proactive procedures, the marine industry does its best to minimize threats to maritime security, both malicious and accidental. And as the industry evolves and the marine sector grows, vigilance, enforcement and training will have to keep up with technology and increased opportunity for threats.

Since 9/11, there’s been an increased focus on protecting the marine sector from terrorism and other similar attacks, both in port and at sea. Several state and international organizations have formed to help set standards for bettering maritime security. Since the marine sector is so vast and the massive amount of goods entering the country is difficult to screen, every precaution possible to minimizing malicious exploitation is critical.

Security is not only the job of vessel safety officers, but the job of the crew as a whole, which is why it’s so crucial for companies to educate and train their employees so their vessels have a better chance of stopping security threats.

Common Security Issues

In today’s marine industry, ensuring security compliance is a complex task, as there is much to look over and many ways a security breach can happen.

Security officers not only need to be vigilant to prevent attempts to undermine the nation’s laws and security, but they also need to know how to be vigilant against local and internal threats. Small-scale attacks can still be harmful to a marine company and can result in the loss of lives, severe environmental damage or harm to company property. Here are a few of these types of risks.


When transporting valuable goods and resources, there are sometimes attempts at the local level to steal these goods from vessels. Security officers need to be vigilant for this reason both in port and at sea, to make sure valuable and sensitive cargo is secure.


Security officers must make sure that when their vessel is in port, no unauthorized personnel come aboard and tamper with sensitive equipment. Even if the documented crew members carry out vessel operations correctly, a trespasser can tamper with cargo rigging and other sensitive gear, which can lead to severe consequences at sea.

Large-scale security measures concern things that can happen on an international scale, usually as the result of more malicious operations than individual crimes, like terrorism, environmental crimes, smuggling and trafficking.

Terrorist Threats

Modern advances in telecommunications and international commercial logistics have increased the range and avenues open to terrorists. Criminals sometimes attempt to use marine shipping channels to transport dangerous weapons and materials.

Terrorists use transportation avenues because they can move goods and even people to advance their cause, and the marine shipping industry is a prime target. They use shipping industries in attempts to damage global, political and economic security, as well as the safety of citizens. Security officers must be vigilant and knowledgeable about the pathways terrorists can use to attack.

Since the maritime shipping sector is by nature an international business, marine professionals must do everything they can to protect their vessel and country from these kinds of threats.

Illegal Maritime Trade

Mariner looking towards ship

A side effect of increasing maritime trade and economic globalization is that it will facilitate the expansion of transnational crime. Trafficking in drugs, arms and people is already big business, and maritime shipping is a crucial method of transport.

International crimes will not disappear anytime soon, and maritime security must help minimize their spread. The more illegal cargo the shipping industry can stop at the source, the less damage the shipment will do once it reaches its destination — by keeping the unlawful products and weapons out of the hands of criminals.

With every shipping vessel carrying hundreds of large containers, it’s difficult for security to check each one thoroughly. Criminals know this, and use it to their advantage. Smuggling networks will attempt to get around security measures and the shipping industry because its vastness and scale make it an easy target.

Smuggling is not exclusive to the shipping industry, as criminals will sometimes attempt to use other types of vessels to get their contraband past international borders.

Just as the oceans are the highways by which we transport a large number of our goods, they’re also the highways for the import and export of illegal items. Organized and international crime organizations use the shipping industry to transport large masses of their product, as we can see when we look at the many large-scale drug busts throughout the years. Not only do they smuggle drugs, but they may also smuggle firearms and other illegal technology that fetches a high price on the black market.


Piracy may seem like an idea from the past, but large ships carrying millions of dollars worth of cargo still tempt criminals to attack ships. Today’s pirates and criminals are usually well-organized and equipped with advanced communication and equipment.

Ample training and experience in maritime security can help crew members prepare for and deal with a piracy attack safely.

Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is another one of the main issues that face international marine security. Illegal migration has been present in the maritime sector for a long time — whether it’s people escaping political unrest or unwilling people being trafficked. It’s difficult for the marine industry to catch all the illegal immigration, but proper marine security techniques help minimize the problem.

Environmental Damage

Because large-scale commercial operations take place in the ocean ecosystem, there will inevitably be incidents that harm the environment. It’s the job of marine security officers to help ensure that their vessel’s operations harm the environment as little as possible. Proper safety and security protocols are the best strategies to avoid disasters, especially in the petroleum industry.

Security Tactics

Overhead view of large ship

So, what do security officers do daily to ensure incidents don’t happen? Let’s look at some of the best practices a vessel security officer, or VSO, carries out.

  • Regularly inspect the vessel: To monitor and ensure security measures, every security officer needs to be vigilant on their vessel and always be looking for anything out of the ordinary.
  • Oversee maintenance to improve security: If there’s anything aboard the ship that doesn’t comply with best security measures, it’s the job of officers to take care of it the right way.
  • Manage the coordination and handling of cargo: When loading and unloading cargo, a security officer needs to make sure to do everything according to protocol and ensure proper checks take place, as well as inspection of vessel stores and bunkers.
  • Proposing modifications: If there are any modifications to the security plan for the vessel, it’s the job of the VSO to suggest these to the company security officer, so they can make a company-wide change to improve security.
  • Report problems: If a vessel audit discovers anything wrong, it’s the security officer’s job to report it to the company safety officer so they can promptly implement corrective actions.
  • Assuring security awareness and vigilance: It’s not only the job of the VSO to monitor and be vigilant about anything out of the ordinary, but the role of other crew members as well. The safety officer should inspire the crew to be on alert and report potential threats.
  • Implement security training: It’s the job of safety officers to train their crew members about how to behave during normal operations and emergency operations of security.
  • Report and record security incidents: Anytime there’s something out of the ordinary, it’s the security officer’s job to note and report their findings to the senior security officer and the company security cfficer.
  • Ensure screening programs: The VSO needs to run screening programs like transportation worker identification credential checks that clear crew members to work around the vessel by passing background tests.
  • Monitor security equipment: A security officer must ensure security equipment is properly operated, tested, calibrated and maintained.
  • Supervise and support crew members: A vessel’s security officer needs to make sure the crew members are acting according to the security plan and regulations for their ship.

MITAGS has been supporting mariners for over 50 years. Donate now.

Future Security Threats in the Maritime Industry

The maritime industry is undeniably evolving. And with more and more operations being automated and technology improving, security will inevitably change too.

A lot of these improvements and advances are addressing the problem of visibility in the supply chain. Now, there are many points in the shipping process where criminals have the opportunity to infiltrate and exploit. But as technology and screening processes advance, security officers will only be able to identify these weak spots better and ensure security for their vessels.

With these changes and updates to the maritime industry, security officers will have to adapt as well — especially in the field of cybersecurity.

Cybersecurity at sea means protecting the valuable data a company holds that criminals can exploit — including cargo information and employee details. Cybercriminals can also hack the electronic systems that control vessels, which can result in severe and costly ramifications.

As technology evolves, maritime security and protocols will need to change too, along with the development of the requisite legal framework to support new shipping methods.

One example of technological evolution within the maritime industry is the push toward completely automated shipping vessels. A vessel without crew members, if perfected, would be much more cost-efficient for shipping companies, and potentially more resistant to security threats — if a ship didn’t need crew members to operate it, limiting access to the vessel could reduce the chance of piracy significantly.

Two Norwegian companies have been working on fully automatic ships, and expect to begin their remote operation in 2020. These ships could interpret real-time data based on information from other vessels, ports, weather conditions and more to operate at peak efficiency. However, these ships are still in the testing phases, and companies will likely be slow to adopt the fully automated ships because of concerns about liability, cybersecurity and safety.

Security Training Options at MITAGS

If you’re interested in the world of ship security, there’s no better way to enter the field than by attending marine training academy. Here at MITAGS, we offer a three-day course that gives crew members the knowledge to become the designated vessel security officer.

The program gives students the correct tools to perform their duties in a modern workforce — based on the requirements of the Maritime Transportation Security Act. The course complies with the USCG Standards of Training and the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers.

We offer our vessel security training at our state-of-the-art campus in Linthicum Heights, Md. We feature advanced simulation technologies that let students practice real-world applications that prepare them to step aboard a vessel with confidence.

Our knowledgeable team of instructors is available to teach vessel security training at company locations, too. Our courses can incorporate the ship security officer course into business-specific exercises for your entire organization to learn. Our team can work with you to set the best time and date to start the training.

Maritime security has never been more critical than now. In a time where the shipping industry is growing and technology is quickly advancing, companies and crew members need to be up to date on the best security protocols to protect their vessel, crew members and their country.

If you have any other questions about our programs or security training, please don’t hesitate to contact us today for more information.