Somali Piracy started with a fight over fish

I tried to interest a popular island biodiversity email group in the following article but the moderator said it had nothing to do with biodiversity. This shows a complete lack of understanding about environmental management because actually the Somali piracy has its roots in a war over biodiversity resources – fish – as I explain below.

The exploits of the Somali pirates as far as the Seychelles have struck fear across the board and slammed the region’s economy. The Western Indian Ocean tuna fishery fell by 30% last year owing to pirate attacks on tuna vessels. As national and international military forces scale up their responses, and national and international press give us almost blow by blow reports, we need to ask ourselves the right question so as to get the most lasting solution to the problem. And I doubt that a purely military response will solve the piracy because I think the problem has not been framed properly.

The piracy problem in Somalia has its roots in the instability of the country after the civil war but also in another form of piracy practiced by foreign nations in Somali waters. This is a dirty little secret that is not talked about in the media but lies at the core of the problem.

Andrew Mwanguru of the Seafarers Assistance Programme in Nairobi says that since the civil war began in Somalia around 1991, illegal fishing trawlers started to trespass and fish in Somali waters even within the 12 mile territorial waters. These vessels encroached on local fishing grounds. A struggle then began between local fishers and the illegal fishing vessels. The foreign trawlers used strong arm tactics against the local fishers, even pouring boiling water on them and crushing the smaller boats and killing fishers. Mwanguru says that it is little wonder that the locals began to arm themselves.

The cycle of warfare has been escalating ever since. At one time there were up to 800 illegal fishing vessels in Somali waters. Most of these vessels are owned by European and Asian companies. Once the Somalis started to seize the foreign illegal vessels to make them stop they were approached to ransom them back. Thus, their appetite for bigger and better targets started to grow.

The problem is exacerbated by the extreme poverty in the country. According to Oxfam over three million Somalis need desperate assistance and one million have fled their homes in the past two years. Oxfam policy advisor Robert Maletta says, “The piracy issue that has grabbed international headlines is a symptom of deeper issues that have gone unaddressed since the collapse of the national government.”

Brett Schaefer, Jay Kingham fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at The Heritage Foundation writes that only ground and sea based military action will not be successful at stopping the piracy but that other matters have to be taken in hand including a recognition of the failure of trying to impose a Centralized State Authority, helping local Somali authorities to improve their governance structures and mature politically, increasing international cooperation to dissuade Somali pirates, and improving the lives of poor and destitute Somalis .

Meanwhile people in East Africa assert that the pirates are investing heavily in some countries. In Kenya for example it is alleged that the pirates have entered the transport,housing and fuel markets in a big way. What does this portend for these local economies and societies and will it help Somalia at the end of the day?