Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Leon Kaye headshot

Somalia's Illegal Fishing Problem Is About More Than Piracy

By Leon Kaye

The newswires were buzzing last week over the story that pirates hijacked a commercial ship off the shores of Somalia for the first time in five years. The news was a reminder of the constant piracy off the coast of Somalia between 2009 and 2011.

The 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, which eventually became the subject of a movie starring Tom Hanks, heightened awareness of the ongoing saga, especially here in the U.S. Billions were lost in global trade due to piracy in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. But eventually, the “three-legged stool” approach of new shipping industry best practices, international cooperation on boosting naval patrols, and armed guards on ships sharply reduced such incidents by the end of 2012.

Now, the pirate offensives are festering again, but overlooked are the underlying conditions that drive Somalis to launch these attacks in the first place.

The lack of economic opportunities and the prevalence of illegal fishing are pushing more Somalis to turn to piracy – partly as a form of protest and partly because they see no other options.

The result is an intractable problem that has starts with the illegal fishing rampant off Somalia’s coast. But smuggling, weak governance structures and even deforestation also have links to this ongoing struggle with which Somalis are living day-to-day.

Besides Al Jazeera, however, the global media are doing little more than blast alarm bells when it comes to reporting on this issue.

This week TriplePundit spoke by phone with Ben Lawellin, project manager of the Horn of Africa program at Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP), from his Colorado office to gain more background about this ongoing crisis.

“In Somalia, piracy started off as a protest against foreign fishing vessels coming in,” Lawellin told 3p. “They were overexploiting fisheries’ resources. At first, this problem started off with fisherman attacking fishing vessels that they could see of the coast. The fishermen would take over a fishing vessel, bring it back to shore, and a ransom would be paid.”

Somalis became incensed at the frequent illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing that grew unabated within their country’s waters. According to a 2015 report from Secure Fisheries, a sister NGO of OBP, trawlers from countries as diverse Iran, Yemen, Spain and Egypt had free reign within Somalia’s maritime zones.

Secure Fisheries estimated that from 1981 to 2013, the amount of fish extracted from the country’s seas totaled three times the size of Somalis’ total catch. That value, suggested the NGO's researchers, amounted to $306 million, dwarfing the $58 million worth of seafood Somali fisherman caught during the same period.

The environmental cost is over 46,000 square miles of damaged marine habitat. And the human cost was devastating in Somalia, where per-capita income is only $270 to $400, depending on the source cited. Lawellin said most people in Somalia who fish are doing so at a subsistence level; the artisan fishing industry itself in Somalia is small.

Furthermore, while institutional structures in Somalia are improving, they are overall still weak. More aggressive licensing and regulatory action by Somalia’s government could boost the country’s revenues from fishing.

“Most of the fishing that continues is unregulated and unreported, from both the international side and also with artisanal fishing," Lawellin told 3p. “There’s no reporting mechanism set up to monitor Somalia’s fishing industry, nor is there any managing framework for the management of fisheries established.”

More people started to realize that there was money to be made in this, he explained. Over the years, the “artisanal piracy” that emerged due outrage over foreign ships impinging on local livelihoods eventually became much more organized and sophisticated in operation.

These fisherman, who then became known as “pirates,” were starting to attract people from as far as Somalia's most populous city, Mogadishu. Local financiers became involved, and some pirates became far more emboldened. It became common to venture out as far as 1,000 miles using dhows, the traditional thin-hulled fishing and cargo ships that make regular trips between the Middle East and India.

Solving this problem will be far from easy, and Lawellin insists that a long-term approach cannot just not focus on piracy. While the international community only has finite resources, intergovernmental organizations and NGOs can work together based on their fields of expertise. Tied into the links between IUU fishing and piracy are the complex smuggling operations that also leave many Somalis on the margins.

Add the fact that much of Somalia, including Puntland and Somaliland, function autonomously from the central government in Mogadishu. And there are few checks and balances to counter the foreign interests that profit off Somalia at the expense of its people. As Al Jazeera reported, locals in Puntland are furious that their government issued licenses to foreign operators seeking to fish within its waters.

“There are other things that have cropped up, as these criminal networks didn’t go away, but instead they began to diversify their portfolio,” Lawellin told us. Trade in weapons, drug trafficking and even charcoal smuggling further complicate the problem.

Militant groups such as al-Shabaab, which is reportedly involved in the illegal charcoal trade that ferrets charcoal used in the hookah lounges of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha, also have ties to piracy on Somalia’s seas. For someone deprived of their source of income and food, groups like al-Shabaab have become a more attractive option, if not the only choice.

In return, much of that charcoal is traded for sugar from Brazil, which has allegedly reaped profits for foreign troops in Kenya – just not for many local Somalis. Meanwhile the charcoal trade, which starts with the felling of trees that in some cases were hundreds of years old, has exacerbated Somalia’s desertification and deforestation, which drives nomadic herders off their lands.

That environmental degradation has been compounded by the ongoing drought in southern Somalia, which drove many citizens to leave the region behind and move to cities such as Mogadishu. The German news agency Deutsch Welle recently estimated that approximately half of Somalia’s population is dependent on foreign aid, which will only drive more citizens to attempt more desperate measures in order to provide for their families.

The tangled web of illegal fishing and how it keeps trapping Somalis into poverty has no simple solution. But Lawellin suggested two recommendations as a start.

First, the global industry needs to improve the traceability of its products. No one really seems to know where this seafood ends up, though the Middle East and Europe are fairly easy assumptions based on Secure Fisheries’ work.

In addition, food companies can do more to raise consumer awareness. “Consumers need to know if they are eating something that came about from an illegal or overfished resource,” he concluded.

Image credit: European Union Naval Force/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye