Following the downfall of Somalia’s last functional government in 1991, the country’s 3,330 km (2,000 miles) of coastline — the longest in continental Africa — has been pillaged by foreign vessels. Somalia waters, particularly off the coast of the semi-autonomous state of Puntland in the country’s North, contain some of the world’s most important stocks of tuna, anchovies, sharks, rays, lobsters, and shrimps, but they are barely monitored or policed, and wide open to legal and illegal plunder.
The absence of the country’s at one time serviceable coastguard, Somali waters have become the site of an international “free for all,” with fishing fleets from around the world illegally plundering Somali stocks and freezing out the country’s own rudimentarily-equipped fishermen, says a UN report released in 2006.
The illegal fishing industry is now estimated to value 4-9 billion U.S. dollars a year. The Sub Saharan countries including Somalia loose around 1 billion dollars to illegal fishing every year. Another report claims that an estimated $300 million worth of seafood is stolen from Somalia’s coastline each year.
This number represents over 15% of the total Somali GDP from 1990 and is likely a larger percentage of the current GDP. The catch sizes are nearly ten times more than prior to 1991 because Somalis typically use artisanal fishing methods and have not had the benefit of new fishing technologies used by foreign fishermen.
Illegal, unlicensed fishing boats ignore or break the rules and often fly flags of convenience to hide their true origins. So confident are they that they will not get arrested, some even fly no flag at all.
During the military regime, Somalia had tuna-produced factories such as in Las-qorey, Qandala and Habo districts that used to export fish to neighbouring countries and other parts of the world.
Many fishermen and local authorities have linked the illegal business to the decline of piracy. Since 2011, the number of piracy incidents, including the hijacking of commercial vessels, has dropped sharply.
In its peak piracy had badly affected the economies of the western Indian Ocean nations owing to increases in maritime insurance premiums which were passed to the consumers. The World Bank’s 2013 The Pirates of Somalia: Ending the Threat, Rebuilding a Nation notes that the loss to the global economy as a result of piracy stands at $18 billion with $53 million being collected as ransom by pirates.
This led to the European states and U.S to make an immediate response to the threat by sending warships, in order to patrol the commercial ships travelling on the route.
One of the major factors that led to the decline of Piracy was the growing lack of support or even resistance to piracy operations by local communities.As much as many Somalis along the coast resented the international navies, they resented the effects of piracy on their communities even more.
Pirate presence in coastal villages and in-land towns tended to be closely followed by a deterioration of security, economic challenges, and the erosion of Islamic religious tenets and Somali moral values.
In light of this, coastal communities started mobilising as soon as piracy’s ugly face was out in public. Religious leaders alongside titled traditional elders, elected officials, local civil society organisations, and individual artists and intellectuals started to openly call on the pirates to stop their trade. They also urged young men not to join piracy, parents not to allow their children to marry pirates, and businesspeople to stop their dealings with them. In many cases, some of the communities even armed themselves to confront those who would not leave their territories peaceably. But in nearly all cases, pirates evacuated with little to no resistance.
However, EX-leaders of pirate gangs have sought new sources of revenue, by providing armed guards, on-board security for the trawlers, which enables them to freely do their business. Evidences confirm that the security teams are drawn from a reservoir of demobilized pirates, who are directed by Politicians and businessmen operating in Somalia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, and Iran.
According to experts on maritime, illegal fishing has had several important negative effects on Somalia. It has deprived the government of badly needed license fees, tariffs, taxes, and other revenue. Not only that, it represents a further erosion of the state’s authority in its maritime domain.
They further stress that illegal fishing in the form of bottom-trawling causes substantial damage to Somalia’s marine ecosystems, including the coral reefs that are home to many species. Some species have already been fished to commercial extinction; many more are on the verge.
Beyond illegal fishing, foreign ships have also long been accused by local fishermen of dumping toxic and nuclear waste off Somalia’s shores. A 2005 United Nations Environmental Program report cited uranium radioactive and other hazardous deposits leading to a rash of respiratory ailments and skin diseases breaking out in villages along the Somali coast. According to the U.N., at the time of the report, it cost $2.50 per ton for a European company to dump these types of materials off the Horn of Africa, as opposed to $250 per ton to dispose of them cleanly in Europe.
One man’s right is another’s wrong
The extent of illegal fishing of the Somali coast is difficult to assess, although one study suggests that more than more than half of the total annual catch in the wider western Indian Ocean is illegal.
Local fishermen simply cannot compete with these vessels. Somali fishermen, whose industry was always small-scale, lacked the advanced boats and technologies of their interloping competitors, and also complained of being shot at by foreign fishermen with water cannons and firearms.
They have been forced, often in unstable canoes, to fish further and further from shore. Some have been documented more than 30 miles out – forced beyond the trawlers in order to net a meager catch.
Illegal fishing vessels use drag nets, traps, and trawl nets to fish for the abundant array of seafood found in Somali waters like tuna, sardines and mackerel with special emphasis on lucrative catches like lobster and sharks.
Legitimate local fishermen have died while the poachers continue to steam further inshore.
“During the pirates time, we used to catch massive number of fishes without going far to the sea… but now if we go as far as 100 miles and end up spending 10 hours on sea, sometimes we come back empty-handed,” says local fisherman, Mohamed Abdi.
In the early days of Somali piracy, those who seized trawlers without licenses could count on a quick ransom payment, since the boat owners and companies backing those vessels didn’t want to draw attention to their violation of international maritime law.
Estimates show European fishermen take a total catch out of Somali waters worth more than five times the value of European annual aid sent into Somalia.
While Fishermen continue to complain about the foreign trawlers, there are other huge number of fishermen who have lost economic opportunity and opted to quit their jobs for safety reasons.
Increased Fish Price
Fish is one of the most revered meals in Puntland’s commercial hub of Bosaso, but high prices have conspired to keep the healthy source of protein away from plates of most residents.
Most people in the town cannot afford fish, whose prices have been consistently on the rise in the past couple of months due to the illegal business on seas.
Not only in Bosaso, most other regions in Somalia have been hit by high fish rises, where the cost of fish is higher than the animal meats.
“Fish markets in the town are facing a massive decline to their daily income because people cannot afford anymore the prices which are rising higher,” says Ahmed Said, a local resident.
Fishermen are saying that their daily catches have reduced significantly, with sometimes failing to catch anything from onshore, resulting them to go far.
It is not only the fish stocks that suffer from this illegal and unregulated trade. The whole marine environment is at risk from the way the fishing pirates operate.
Last year, Puntland President Abdiweli Mohamed Ali described illegal fishing as a ‘’natural disaster’’. But influential Politicians and businessmen have been found of facilitating the illegal trade by bringing in trawlers to the regional seas from countries such as Iran, Yemen and other Asian countries.
The regional administration reached secret agreements with Djibouti and Yemen government on Fisheries sector, which many locals believe that it will be benefits to the two governments.
Somalia only recently, in June 2014, declared its EEZ in line with UNCLOS. Somalia did not previously have internationally recognized authority over its offshore waters (between 12 and 200 nautical miles).
Monitoring and combating any of these misdeeds is next to impossible — Somalia’s current government lacks the infrastructure in place to effectively manage its living marine resources.
Impacts of illegal fishing go beyond the target fish stocks and can have a detrimental effect on food security and livelihoods of coastal populations in developing countries such as Somalia.
Perhaps, efforts to sustainably manage fisheries are severely undermined by Illegal fishing and in extreme circumstances it can lead to the collapse of fish stocks.
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