With no effective government in Somalia, hundreds of trawlers from around the world, fishing illegally and with impunity, have flocked to the area to take advantage of the rich seas, depriving local fishermen of their livelihoods.
The cycle of piracy
It took Farah Abd Jameh and his fellow Somalian pirates just a few audacious minutes last Saturday to achieve what the 13 nations of Opec had failed to do a few weeks earlier. Briefly, they raised the price of oil. It has been a week since the Sirius Star, the Saudi-owned supertanker with its US$100 million (Dh367m) cargo of oil, became the biggest catch yet to be added to the fleet of more than 15 hijacked vessels held hostage at anchor off pirate strongholds in Somalia.
The pirates' only interest in oil prices lies in the US$25 million they have reportedly demanded from Aramco, the Saudi Arabian state oil company, to free the ship, its cargo and its crew of 25. "Once they have agreed on the ransom, it will be taken in cash to the oil tanker," Farah Abd Jameh told Al Jazeera on Tuesday. He added a prosaic detail, revealing that the pirates had more than AK47s and rocket-propelled grenades in their armoury: "We will mechanically count the money and we have machines that can detect fake money."
Whatever price the pirates get for their latest booty, the signs are that the world is running out of patience with them. The various navies converging on the area have started to shoot - the Indians sank one pirate vessel on Tuesday and on Nov 11 British Royal Marines killed three pirates and captured others. South Korea has said it is also dispatching warships to the area to protect its commercial fleet.
On Thursday, Maersk, the world's largest shipping company, announced that its fleet of 50 oil tankers would no longer run the Somalian gauntlet. Other shipping companies will almost certainly follow suit, which will affect the prices of the goods they carry - the safer but longer route, via the Cape of Good Hope, adds more than two weeks to the journey to and from Europe. But according to some, Somalians are not the only pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. In the wake of the 1991 civil war, which has left Somalia with no effective government, hundreds of trawlers from around the world, fishing illegally and with impunity, have flocked to the area to take advantage of the rich seas, depriving local fishermen of their livelihoods.
"Because there is no coast guard and no real government in control, this illegal, unregulated fishing has been going on for quite some years," says Hans Bage, a fisheries officer in the region with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The illegal fleets, he says, "have of course taken much of the resources" but have also damaged the gear of the local fishermen, leading to confrontations.
Because of the unstable situation in Somalia, the FAO has no office in the country but monitors events from its office in Ethiopia. Its staff have heard accounts of foreign trawlers working the shallow coastal waters and harassing locals. On a visit to Puntland three years ago, Mr Bage was told that armed locals had shot at one trawler, driving it away, but "after a couple of days it came back, armed with a big cannon, and started shooting at the village and destroyed houses and injured people". The nationality of the ship's crew was not known, he said: "These guys are not carrying flags."
Although piracy is now an established industry in Somalia, there is evidence that it was founded on the desperation of the country's fishermen. In September the International Maritime Bureau reported that about 1,200 Somalis, mostly former fishermen or soldiers, were at the heart of the piracy problem. Somalia, two former British and Italian colonies granted independence in 1960, began to develop its fisheries in the Seventies with help from the USSR. Keen to extend its influence in East Africa, in 1974 the USSR embarked on a joint venture with the government that allowed it to operate 10 factory trawlers in Somalian waters. It was a promising start, but it lasted only three years. Like many countries at the time, Somalia was at the mercy of the ebb and flow of Cold War geopolitics and in 1977 the nascent fishing industry foundered when the USSR sided with Ethiopian Marxists in a border dispute.
As a result, according to FAO, by the next year fishery production had dropped abruptly, from more than 3,500 tonnes of fish and lobsters to 250. By December 1982, it was plain the industry had not recovered from the setback, although the government was trying to improve the situation. The Marine Fisheries Review, the quarterly journal of the US government's fisheries department, reported that the Somalian government was working to improve its commercial fishing operation to combat the country's perpetual food shortages.
At that time, despite Somalia's 3,000 kilometres of coastline, the country's fisheries were "still largely undeveloped", limited to 700 small motorised boats, paid for by the government and operated by about 19 fishing co-operatives. Through the co-operatives, the fishermen had a growing market for their catches and cold stores had been built with assistance from Japan and Germany. Any progress, however, would be swept away by the brutal civil war that broke out in 1991, leading to the complete collapse of central government in the country. By 1998, it was being reported at a UN conference on trade and development in Dubai that at any one time as many as 300 unregulated, industrial-sized foreign trawlers were plying the rich waters off the country.
The free-for-all had begun. In 2000, the Qaran newspaper in Somalia reported that the number of foreign boats fishing illegally off the country was increasing and quoted one fisherman who claimed the boats operated with their lights off and opened fire on local vessels that challenged them. The next year, Abdirahman Kulmiye, an assistant fleet manager for Somalia's Ministry of Fisheries until the collapse of the government in 1991, hit out at the fleets of foreign trawlers which, he said, were taking advantage of the power vacuum in Somalia to plunder its territorial waters.
"The war purportedly being waged by the Somali fishermen against foreign trawlers isn't about making a few thousand dollars in ransom money," he wrote in East African magazine. Rather, he said, "it is about protecting what patriotic Somalis regard as their country's rightful resources from being depleted and destroyed by these ships that have descended on Somalia's waters like so many sharks in a feeding frenzy". The fleets concentrated off the north-east coast of the country "were so dense that the glow that emanates from their combined lights at night can be mistaken for a well-lit metropolitan city".
The UN reported in 2002 that there were now an estimated 700 foreign-owned, unlicensed fishing vessels operating in Somali waters. "It is impossible to monitor their fishery production, in general, let alone the state of the fishery resources they are exploiting," said an FAO report. There was, it added, "also strong suspicion of illegal dumping of industrial and nuclear wastes along the Somali coast".
Somali fishermen have appealed to the UN for help to get rid of the illegal fishing fleets, condemning their activities as "economic terrorism". "If nothing is done about them, there soon won't be much fish left in our coastal waters," Muhammad Hussein, a fisherman from Marka, 100km south of Mogadishu, told IRIN, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs news service, in 2006. The world, Mr Hussein said, was "talking only about the piracy problem in Somalia, but not about the destruction of our coasts and lives by these foreign ships".
In 2005 Somalia's fishermen were dealt another blow, this time by nature. The tsunami that devastated coastal areas fringing the Indian Ocean struck at the height of the fishing season, killing hundreds and destroying fishing boats and gear. Abdul Warsame, the managing editor of Mareeg, a London-based Somali news site which on Tuesday predicted an overwhelming military response from the international community to the capture of the Sirius Star, says that what the fishermen are doing is wrong, "but there must be another side to this; there are a lot of people who depend on fishing who have been attacked by big [fishing] ships and that injustice is there".
The western media, he says, "doesn't write about illegal fishing and things like that ? piracy is a problem and criminal, no doubt about it. But there is another view: why is the West ignoring illegal dumping of nuclear waste and the illegal fishing?" Ali Osman, a Somalian journalist living in the US, says Somali fishermen have been regularly attacked by large foreign trawlers, crewed predominantly by former Soviet sailors and operated on behalf of Russian, Chinese and Taiwanese owners. In some cases, he claims, fishermen have died after being hosed down with hot water.
Although they have now graduated to ships as large as the Sirius Star, it is no coincidence that trawlers from countries including Spain, South Korea and France have been among the pirates' targets in recent years. "Any fishing ship or boat should be treated as a pirate as they are the root cause of this scourge to begin with," wrote Mr Osman in an article published by Mareeg this month. The villagers of Somalia's coastline faced stark choices, he said: to starve, to flee to Yemen or to "fight back as many are doing". Unfortunately, their methods "have attracted unsavory individuals from the lawless country" whose sole purpose "is to hijack all and any kind of ship ? this is a secondary consequence no one, including villagers, foresaw".
Yesterday, Mr Kulmiye, the former Somalian fisheries official who now works for an international NGO in the country, said what had begun as the fishermen's resistance had itself been hijacked and grown into "a multimillion-dollar enterprise". In the early Nineties, he said, the fishermen had "tried to fight back and armed themselves with small weapons and swift boats and tried to chase the ships away, in the process capturing some trawlers and longliners. That was the genesis of the piracy because some people saw it as a means of making money. The normal fishermen's course was hijacked by some people to make a quick buck."
There is, he believes, "a foreign hand" behind the piracy. "I think it is beyond the capabilities of the Somalis alone," he said. "How do they get the money? The guys who hijack the ships are illiterate, they don't know any foreign language. How do they communicate with the owners of the ships? There must be some 'godfathers' somewhere in the world." firstname.lastname@example.org