A Crackdown on Somali Pirates Has Made Illegal Fishing Safe Again

Somali women prepare to offload the catch of the day from fishermen, at the Bossaso Harbour in Puntland, Somalia, Jan. 29, 2015. KAREL PRINSLOO/ADESO

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By Jessica Hatcher

The skinny Somali fisherman in his mid-20s throws his head back and rolls his eyes when he recalls better times thanks to pirates. “There were way too many fish,” he says, laughing. Five years ago, Somali pirates were attacking foreign ships on a near-daily basis, which scared off the unlicensed European and Asian fishing vessels that for years ravaged Somalia’s seas. Somalis felt safe to fish anywhere, and marine stocks grew.

Hassan started fishing in 2000 at the age of 10—it is all he knows. But last month, he quit. Piracy is dead, thanks to the multilateral effort to stamp it out, and the unlicensed foreign fishing vessels are back. Just as piracy was good to the fishermen of Somalia, Hassan says, NATO’s $75 million anti-piracy task force has been good to those looking to plunder her seas.

The conditions Hassan describes today are almost exactly the same as those 10 years ago that drove some Somalis to attack foreign fishing vessels in an attempt to recoup their losses, which in turn led to the multibillion-dollar piracy industry. By 2005, according to the U.N., Somalia was losing $300 million to illegal fishing every year. The Federal Republic of Somalia has the longest coastline on mainland Africa, but now artisanal fishing is not viable, according to residents in the semi-autonomous state of Puntland.

“I’m jobless,” Hassan says, “and I’m not the only one. Our options are either to become a charcoal maker, a pirate, to join al-Shabab [the extremist military group] or to starve or beg.” I ask if the rebirth of piracy is really an option, and he looks glum. “As long as NATO is there, it’s a dead end. If they’re not, then it becomes an option. NATO? We can’t take on that.”

Piracy got the Hollywood treatment in 2013, when director Paul Greengrass depicted the 2009 hijacking of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama in the filmCaptain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. Abdi played a real-life pirate named Abduwali Muse. While Abdi walked the red carpets picking up a BAFTA award and an Oscar nomination, Muse languished in a U.S. prison cell, the first person charged with piracy in an American court in over a century. The fates of these two Somali men, both infants when the ongoing civil war started in 1991, diverged the day Abdi escaped Somalia to Yemen and then Minnesota. Muse remained in Somalia as it descended into anarchy. Seventeen years later, he turned to piracy to survive.

Last year, Abdi became a Goodwill Ambassador for a Somali development agency called Adeso. Its Somali founder, Fatima Jibrell, says the organization is focused on long-term programs addressing policy, encouraging civil rights movements, providing vocational training and paying communities to rehabilitate their ecosystems. In January, Adeso facilitated Abdi’s first trip back to Somalia.

I first met Abdi in Nairobi, Kenya, the headquarters of many humanitarian aid missions in Somalia. He was full of hope, with “a vision of a peaceful country, with schools, hospitals, libraries, where I can raise my children and live in peace.” Piracy has gone, for now. The Islamic militia al-Shabab has been weakened by U.S. and African Union operations, and Somalis are returning.

Puntland, where Abdi’s family hails from, was synonymous with piracy. Its economic capital, Bosaso, crowns the Horn of Africa on Somalia’s northeastern point, where the Gulf of Aden widens into the Arabian Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, linking Europe to India and the Middle East via the Suez Canal. Its waters are among the world’s most fecund fishing grounds. And for nearly a decade it had no government.

Abdi and his family left Somalia in 1992, initially for Yemen, where they spent seven years before moving to the United States. Back in Somalia, rule of law evaporated, both on land and at sea. Warlords filled the vacuum. Along the country’s 2,000-mile coastline, foreign fishing vessels pillaged waters that teemed with fish. Warlords tolerated the over-fishing in exchange for weapons. As locals tell it, Somalia’s struggling fishermen eventually armed themselves to fight the foreign fishing boats. What began as an operation became a thriving hijack and ransom business that took in nearly half a billion dollars between 2005 and 2012.

Abdi now lives in Los Angeles, the first Somali to make it in Hollywood. SinceCaptain Phillips, he has played Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord, in Hawaii Five-0, and a double agent in the 2015 film Eye in the Sky, alongside Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman. But for all his success, he is delightfully true to his roots. He is more expressive in the guttural tones of his mother tongue. At mealtimes, he hunches low over his food and shovels it in with his right hand in the local tradition. And, like any true Somali, he adores camels and barters gamely for fresh camel’s milk on the roadside. He hangs out of the car window and sings in Somali to the puzzled-looking dromedaries we pass.

At a vocational school supported by Adeso in the town of Badhan, the teacher finds out who Abdi is and howls with laughter. “The film should have shown more of the drivers [of piracy], because it’s not just a one-dimensional perspective,” he says. “We’re real people, and we have real problems.”

At the port in Bosaso, fishermen are landing the daily catch on a small beach by the dock. A 20-foot motorboat cuts its engine 20 yards from the shore. Women race out and fight over the few fish, arms aloft and bright robes dilated on the water’s surface. On the beach, a smartly dressed female fish trader carrying a shiny black handbag calls out, “Where are the fish?” She used to sell to international charities, but not anymore because of high prices and poor availability. “This is the way it is now,” a fisherman tells her. Twenty years ago, $10 would have bought 22 pounds of tuna, he adds. Now it’s $40 for the same.

Fishermen all attribute the drop in fish stocks to unlicensed foreign fishing vessels. They are “pretty nasty,” one maritime security expert says. They obscure or change their boats’ names and numbers, swap their flags and turn off transponders. “They’ll breach the law all the time to get business, and that extends from the South Koreans to the Chinese and Taiwanese. Other major players are Spanish and French,” he says, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Coast Guard officials and fishing associations in Puntland say they have repeatedly requested support from NATO to combat illicit fishing, but to no avail. International anti-piracy vessels are equipped with sophisticated surveillance equipment, “but there is no information sharing,” the security professional says. It doesn’t help, he adds, that different Somali states are issuing different licenses for what is, under international law, one zone.

Mohamed Abdirahman Osman, chairman of the Puntland Fishery Association, is irate at NATO. “We’ve been asking them for two years!” he says. “Why can they get a mandate to deal with piracy in one month, when our people are dying and we’re losing our livelihoods? They only care about their own interests.”

A NATO official said, “Actions to counter illegal fishing would breach the scope and capabilities of the mission.” But its members are aware of the issue, the official added, and are working with the United Nations and the European Union to combat it.

Fishermen in Puntland say the majority of illicit fishing vessels in Somali waters are Yemeni or Iranian. Others say the trawlers, which damage breeding grounds by scraping the ocean floor, are largely South Korean. Huge mother ships hover on the edge of an Economic Exclusion Zone, which extends 200 miles offshore, while smaller boats venture in three miles from the shore, using dragnets to encircle schooling fish.

The Fishery Association’s Osman shows me a video. In it, men on eight small skiffs surround a net they are pulling in. Meter-long milkfish burst out of the water in arcs, some making good on their bid for freedom by jumping over the boats. The men struggle to contain the catch, batting fish back whenever they fly past. Osman claims the video shows Yemenis fishing illegally in Somalia’s waters, but that is impossible to verify.

Some Somalis are finding work as guards on the foreign vessels. Hassan, the former fisherman, says he was fishing in Gaan, a natural port with diverse marine life, when a 50-foot fishing vessel drew near. Gunmen onboard shouted, “Move or you’re dead!” while pointing guns at him. They were Somalis from Hassan’s community. “We see each other at restaurants, we drink tea together. I’m full of anger,” he says. “That’s why I ran away.”

Fishermen allege the problem is fueled by corruption—illegal licensing agreements, protection rackets, facilitation of unlicensed fishing through graft—that starts at the top, with government ministers and clan elders. Colonel Mohamed Ali Hashi, commander of the port police, denies this. He admits, however, that unlicensed vessels are employing armed Somalis to protect them. NATO stopped piracy but promoted illegal fishing, he agrees. He is fighting a multimillion-dollar unregulated fishing industry with an annual budget of less than $10,000 and speedboats with a 12-mile range. Asked whether piracy could return, he says “yes,” without hesitation—a concern NATO shares.

On our last morning, Abdi and I stand at the same docks from which he left aboard a livestock carrier more than 20 years ago. We share the realization that Somalia’s maritime security is back to where it was before piracy began. Could Abdi’s life have been more like Muse’s, had he not left? It’s difficult to know. “If your environment is bad,” he says, “it’s really hard to be good.”

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