WASHINGTON — Despite a drop in attacks in recent months, lawmakers on Thursday expressed concern that not enough legal penalties exist to keep poor fishermen from pursuing piracy as a profitable career.

"It has become a business," said Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss. "And I think we need to take steps to address this before it gets even more out of hand."

Defense officials told members of the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that improved anti-piracy efforts by the international community have lead to a drop in piracy since the height of attacks last summer.

Vice Adm. William Gortney, head of U.S. Central Command’s Naval Forces, said there were more than 293 pirate attacks worldwide last year, with 111 of them occurring in the Gulf of Aden or off the east coast of Somalia.

So far in 2009, attacks have continued at about half that rate, with 26 through January and February.

Gortney credited increased naval presence near Somalia — ships and personnel from 18 countries have been patrolling the region since August — and security improvements by private shipping firms for some of the decrease.

"But ultimately piracy is a problem that starts ashore and requires an international solution ashore," he told the lawmakers. "We made it clear at the outset of our efforts that we cannot guarantee safety in this vast region."

Fixing the problem, defense and state department officials said, includes not only stabilizing Somalia’s economy but also determining how to prosecute and jail pirates caught in the act.

Lawmakers said they’d consider strengthening or updating U.S. code to allow U.S. justice officials to prosecute pirates who attack American ships anywhere in the world, but questioned if U.S. courts would be the best place to pursue such cases.

No international court currently exists to handle piracy suspects, according to Stephen Mull, acting undersecretary for international security at the State Department. Instead, the U.S. and other nations have been working with African governments to see how suspects could be tried and imprisoned there.

On Thursday, the Navy handed over seven suspected pirates to Kenya for prosecution, after they were caught trying to hijack a ship in the Gulf of Aden.

It’s the first attempt by the international task force to put piracy suspects on trial in regional courts.

But Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., asked if the threat of jail time would be enough to discourage pirates when a successful hijacking can earn them millions.

He asked State Department officials if private shipping companies should be hiring security firms to lure and attack would-be hijackers, "increasing the cost for pirates" in the region.

Karl Wycoff, acting deputy assistant secretary for African affairs at the department, discouraged the idea, saying it could encourage pirates to become more aggressive in their attacks and goes against "our attempts to try and build respect for the rule of law in the region."

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