LONDON (Reuters) - Alarmed at the growing number of attacks off Somalia, international merchant shipping is edging closer to doing the unthinkable in peace time: by-passing one of world's most vital trade routes.
Somali pirates have been plundering ships off the Horn of Africa for years, but the recent surge in attacks has spilled out into the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, threatening access to the Suez Canal.
Now big firms employed in moving everything from oil, gas and coal to toys, are urgently considering whether to travel round South Africa's Cape of Good Hope instead.
"Despite all the publicity over piracy it will really hit home when consumers in the West find they haven't got their Nintendo gifts this Christmas," said Sam Dawson of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF).
"If there isn't a let up and active intervention by navies in the region, the impact on trade will come within weeks or months because we've gone from one attack every couple of weeks to four in a single day," he said.
"These attacks are no longer 50 to 100 miles off Somalia they are 200 miles plus off the coast... this is not just guys in little fishing boats anymore. We know there are three probably ex-Soviet trawlers acting as mother ships," Dawson said.
The Gulf of Aden, where many of the attacks are occurring, connects Europe to the Middle East and Asia via the Suez Canal.
The alternative voyage round the Cape of Good Hope would add upwards of three weeks to a typical journey, delaying goods to buyers and increasing transport costs.
Although foreign navies have sent ships to the region and have begun taking tougher action against pirates -- the British navy killed two this week -- seizures of ships have continued.
Aid shipments to war-battered Somalia itself are among those that have been affected. A Chinese fishing boat was seized by pirates off Kenya late on Thursday and ordered to Somali waters.
TRADE CRISIS BREWING?
Industry experts, representing trade across all goods and resources, say the problem is coming to a head.
Giles Noakes, chief maritime security officer at BIMCO, a big industry association, said two operators, one a gas carrier and a tug operator Svitzer, a maritime logistics group, were already routing their fleets via the Cape.
Noakes said the Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) carrier took the decision after it had two ships hijacked in the space of a few days.
"LPG is particularly combustible, you fire an RPG-7 in to one of those tankers and it will go bang," he said, referring to the type of anti tank grenade launcher used by the pirates.
"The next group that I expect to be going round the Cape are the big dry bulkers -- carriers of coal, grains and iron ore -- who also cruise at lower speeds," Noakes said.
The world's oil industry too is watching events closely, though no tanker owners have so far publicly declared they are circumventing Suez.
"Some tanker owners, charterers, are making a decision not to put their tankers in that direction," said Bill Box a spokesman for oil tanker industry group Intertanko.
He said that rather than ballasting back through Suez operators whose ships come free in the Mediterranean say, would rather continue trading in the Atlantic-basin, than return to Asia.
"And they are doing that because they are thinking about the safety of their staff and the risks involved," Box said.
(Editing by Matthew Tostevin)