Prelude to Piracy: The Poor Fishermen of Somalia

By Horand Knaup in Mombasa, Kenya

Firing shots at a luxury cruise ship, taking a super tanker hostage: the papers are full of Somalia's audacious pirates. But the local fishermen grab fewer headlines -- and have a stricken existence.

The outcry, addressed to the United Nations and the international community, was loud and bitter. "Help us solve the problem," said professional fisherman Muhammed Hussein from the coastal city of Marka, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of the Somali capital Mogadishu. "What is happening here is economic terrorism."

Jeylani Shaykh Abdi, another Somali fisherman, added: "They are not just robbing us of our fish. They are ramming our boats and taking our nets -- including the catch."

It wasn't long ago that Somali fisherman were loudly complaining about the poor state of their lives and livelihoods. About 700 ships from other countries, they said, were casting their nets along Somalia's roughly 3,300 kilometers (2,050 miles) of coastline, using practices that showed little consideration for the fish stocks or local fishermen. None of the trawlers, the Somali fishermen claimed, had a license or an agreement with the government in Mogadishu. Of course, that government has wielded practically no influence over the past 15 years.

The intruders, Hussein and Shaykh Abdi complained, used nets with very small mesh sizes and fished with banned dragnets, and with dynamite in some cases. The foreign fishing boats would ram local fishing vessels, pour boiling water on them and, if they still refused to budge, shoot at them. It was not unusual for the intruders to hire Somali militias to drive away the local fishermen.

That was in 2006. The outcry was loud and clear -- but without any results.

Back then the Somali fishermen were doing badly. Today they are even worse off. Trawlers from faraway places continue to ply the waters off the long coastline, ships from Japan and India, as well as Italy and Spain. The Spanish fishing cutter that pirates hijacked in May and the Thai trawler an Indian warship inadvertently sank in early November provided evidence of just how attractive the Somali fishing grounds are worldwide.

Sardines To Sharks

And for good reason: The coast of Somalia has among the highest concentrations of fish in the world's oceans. Somali fishermen catch a wide variety of seafood -- from tuna to sardines, dorado to perch, shark to lobster -- in their nets. At the turn of the millennium, Somalia was home to about 30,000 professional fishermen, along with 60,000 occasional fishermen.

Fishing was never a thriving business in Somalia. Somalis are not enthusiastic fish eaters, and the bulk of their catch was traditionally exported. But today there is little left of what was already a relatively small and unprofitable industry. Fish processing, especially for export, has ceased to exist. There is no reliable transportation and there are no longer any functioning refrigeration facilities in the country, nor are there any ships left that could dock in Mogadishu.

Somali fishermen have another problem: toxic waste. Initially dumped on land, toxic waste was increasingly dumped at sea after the collapse of the regime of former President Siad Barre in 1991. Because the country has no coast guard, for the past 20 years the Somali coastline has had no protection against European ships dumping waste at sea. Although hard evidence was rare, there have been periodic and mysterious incidents. In early 2002, tens of thousands of dead fish washed ashore at Merca, south of Mogadishu. The causes remain unclear.

In the spring of 2004, fishermen spotted two large containers floating in the water near Bosaso. Whether they were deliberately tossed overboard or accidentally fell of a container ship in rough seas is unclear. The Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004, which also reached the African coast, unearthed dozens of containers of toxic waste and deposited the waste along the Somali coast. According to a United Nations report, many coastal residents suffered "acute respiratory infections, heavy coughing, bleeding gums and mouth, abdominal haemorrhages, unusual skin rashes, and even death."

Experts and environmentalists have long been aware of the problem. In 2006, a team of specialists sent to the region to investigate discovered nine toxic waste sites along 700 kilometers (435 miles) of coastline in southern Somalia.

The UN envoy to Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, said last October that the UN has "reliable information that European and Asian companies are dumping toxic waste, including nuclear waste, off the Somali coastline."

An Excuse for the Pirates

In Mombasa, Kenya, pirate expert Andrew Mwangura complains "that toxic waste has been dumped in Somalia for a long time," and that the international community is looking on and "doing nothing about it," thereby giving the pirates "a convenient excuse to legitimize their actions."

The words of UN Envoy Ould-Abdallah were confirmed only a few days later, when leaking containers of toxic waste were washed ashore in Harardhere, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Mogadishu. Animals in the area contracted unusual diseases, and coastal residents suffered coughing and vomiting attacks. The lack of scruples displayed by foreigners using Somali waters to dump their toxic waste is not all that surprising: proper waste disposal in Europe costs about 400 times as much as illegal dumping in Somalia.

The extent of ocean dumping of toxic waste is just as poorly documented as the claims of adverse effects on fish populations off the coast. Speculation abounds, and yet there are no reliable studies from the last 20 years. The fact is, however, that Somali fishermen, for various reasons, have been catching fewer and fewer fish in their nets for years.

While the fishermen complained quietly, the members of another profession -- the pirate trade -- have been quick to claim the plight of the fishermen as their own. The Somali pirates have repeatedly argued that they were forced into piracy by the demise of fishing and the practice of dumping toxic waste at sea. But the truth is that only a small fraction of traditional fishermen have switched to piracy. When the recently hijacked supertanker Sirius Star dropped anchor off Harardhere, former army General Mohamed Nureh Abdulle told the BBC that the hijackers were unknown, and that they had not attempted to establish contact with the coastal population. Elsewhere along the coast, it is often unknown men -- not former local fishermen -- who are guarding the ships and waiting for ransom money.

Attractive Piracy

Nevertheless, toxic waste and illegal foreign fishing are convenient arguments for the pirates. "The Somali coastline has been destroyed, and we believe this money is nothing compared to the devastation that we have seen on the seas," said Januna Ali Jama, a spokesman for the pirate group that is still waiting for its ransom for the MV Faina, a Ukrainian vessel carrying tanks and military hardware.

Pirate life is attractive. The profits are immense, even though the men carrying out the hijackings keep only about 30 percent of the ransom money. Of the remainder, 20 percent goes to the bosses, 30 percent is paid in bribes to government officials and 20 percent is set aside for future actions.

The pirates are quick to accept losses. Even though a number of pirates are now in prison in Paris, in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa and in Bosaso, Somalia's main port, and although the international community has sent a small armada of warships to Somalia, the hijackers are getting more and more audacious, targeting supertankers and ships transporting weapons, luxury yachts and chemical tankers.

In what was apparently a coordinated effort, on Tuesday night they attempted to attack five ships simultaneously in waters east of Somalia. A short time earlier, they had attacked the luxury cruise ship MS Nautica, with more than 1,000 passengers on board.

None of the attacks succeeded -- but this will not deter the pirates. Bosaso, Eyl and Hobyo, which, until recently, were miserably poor fishing towns, are barely recognizable today. Small mansions are popping up by the dozen, new restaurants are opening their doors, giant weddings are all the rage and the imports of four-wheel-drive SUVs are booming. Clan affiliation, long one of the key impediments to development in Somalia, is suddenly irrelevant. With ransom money pouring into coastal towns, former differences are fading into the background.

Everyone profits from the sudden influx of cash: construction firms, gas stations, restaurants and outfits specializing in providing food for the hostages. Even the government of Somalia's semi-autonomous Puntland region appears to be in on the take. "Presumably, all key political figures in Somalia are profiting from piracy," says Roger Middleton, an analyst with the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

Only one professional group is getting nothing from the boom along the coast: Somali fishermen.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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