By Dana Gilliland
What do illegal fishing and piracy have in common? Both are banned under international maritime law, but they are directly linked in Somalia, where illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing is leading to a resurfacing of piracy after a several years’ hiatus.
Somalia’s over 3,300 km of coastline — the longest in Africa — is rich in diverse fish species, while fisheries are minimally regulated. This combination has made the region a prime target for foreign fishing vessels searching for abundant catches. Somalia is also strategically positioned at the entrance to the Red Sea, making it a gateway to and from the Suez Canal, through which thousands of ships pass each year.
A decade ago, over-fishing devastated coastal livelihoods in Somalia, leading to the initial outbreak of piracy there. “Modern-day piracy began when impoverished fishermen extorted money from unlicensed foreign fishing vessels,” The Guardian reported in 2015, “which evolved into a multimillion dollar criminal enterprise that at its height saw a $9.5m ransom paid for the release of the South Korean tanker, Samho Dream.”
Between 2009 and 2011, hijackings and attacks by pirates were regular occurrences for ships sailing in Somali waters. By 2011, Somali pirates were said to be holding approximately 700 captives, according to The Guardian.
Somalia became globally infamous as a source of piracy. Even Hollywood took notice, in a 2013 movie featuring Tom Hanks as a ship’s captain captured by Somali pirates.
Somali piracy declined significantly after 2011, in part due to European Union Naval Force patrol efforts. But in December, NATO ended its anti-piracy mission off Somali waters, and in March Somali pirates carried off the first successful hijacking of a commercial ship since 2012. There have also been several other unsuccessful hijacking attempts, leading to renewed speculation about the cause.
The most common explanation involves Somalia’s underlying economic struggles, which are partly, again, the consequence of IUU fishing. Observers believe several former pirates shifted back to fishing between 2012 and 2017. But with illegal foreign fishing vessels depleting the fisheries, piracy, the story goes, is one way to protest the lack of maritime governance in Somalia’s fishing waters.
It is also a way to exact revenge on foreign fishing vessels that not only operate illegally in the region but reportedly attack local fishermen, sometimes fatally.
Oceans Beyond Piracy, a U.S.-based non-profit group, conducted a series of interviews with fishers, government officials, business people and aid workers along the Somali coast. Every respondent pointed to illegal fishing as the primary driver behind piracy. Here is a typical quote: “Illegal fishing and extreme poverty are the main factors that made fishermen and youths get involved in piracy as an alternative way of getting their daily bread.”
Although the presence of international navies is credited with keeping piracy in check, there is also a strong mistrust among Somalis about these navies. Many believe they are there solely to protect foreign interests and fishing vessels from pirates, not for the benefit of Somalia itself. The aggressive behavior of these foreign crews towards small-scale Somali fishermen and their gear increases the tension.
The economic struggles driving many Somali fishermen and youth to piracy underscores why good international marine governance is so necessary, and valuable. Its absence—especially with regard to IUU fishing in waters adjacent to developing countries — ultimately leads to plundering on the seas, whether by fishing vessels or pirates.