THE EAST AFRICAN Magazine
Monday, July 9, 2001 

Militia vs Trawlers: Who is the Villain?

Scruffy, armed and violent, the militias who hijack ships for ransom off Somalia's coast have naturally received some very bad press. But the real sharks, says ABDIRAHMAN JAMA KULMIYE, are the trawlers from all over the world who are busy 'asset stripping' the country's unpoliced waters and destroying not only the marine environment but also local fishermen's livelihoods

In a little under one year, between 1997 and 1998, armed fishermen twice hijacked a Kenyan-registered trawler fishing well inside the territorial waters of Somalia off Gara’ad village some 1,000 nautical miles away from its operating base at Mombasa. Fortunately, in both incidents, no human life was lost and the ship as well as the crew were released after the owners had paid an undisclosed sum in ransom money. Reliable sources put the money paid in the region of several hundred thousand US dollars.

Similar cases involving both cargo and fishing vessels as well as tourist yachts have been reported in the press in the past few years, the latest being the just released Russian shrimp trawlers Gorizont I and II, which were detained in Kismayo for nearly eight months. Even Shifco trawlers, which still fly the Somali flag, have not been spared.

Shifco, an acronym for Somali High-seas International Fishing Company, was established by the last Somali government with an Italian grant to exploit the fishery resources of the nation. On more than four occasions, the managing director has had to buy the freedom of his ships and that of the sailors aboard after the trawlers have been captured and held for ransom off different parts of the country’s coastline. Ironically, Shifco is the only entity with a governmental tag still functioning normally in Somalia, though its operations are shrouded in secrecy.

Regrettably, not all the confrontations between local militias and trawlers have been resolved peacefully. Quite a number have ended in violence, claiming the lives of a dozen-odd people on both sides as well as leading to the loss of property worth millions of dollars.

At the moment, what worries many observers is not just the increased incidence of attacks, but also the capacity of the attackers to fire upon and hijack ships sailing on international maritime routes as far as 60km offshore. The breakdown of law and order in the country as well as the easy access to sophisticated weaponry in the open market has complicated the situation further.

In its 1999 Report, the International Maritime Bureau ranked Somalia alongside Nigeria as the sixth most dangerous place worldwide for shipping. The IMB reported that there were a total of 11 recorded pirate attacks in Somali waters in 1998 alone, making Somalia the hottest piracy spot in Africa. According to the IMB, the Indonesian waters/Singapore Straits are the most dangerous zones for piracy worldwide.

As a result, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) issues regular warnings to vessels to avoid the Somali coastline.

Such deplorable acts as piracy and hostage-taking have undoubtedly outraged Somalia's friends and foes alike and further dented its already battered image as a nation. However, such a reaction begs a number of key questions: What was the Kenya-flagged trawler doing fishing in the territorial waters of Somalia when it was licensed to conduct its business within Kenyan waters only? Who ordered the ship to go and fish in Somali waters? Were the Kenyan authorities aware of the ship’s activities?

Even more interesting are such questions as: Why are so many captains unable to resist fishing in Somali waters despite the terrible security risks? Why do the fishermen arm themselves in the first place?

The answers to these questions are to be found in the rich fishing grounds off the northeast coast of Somalia. Somalia has the longest coastline, over 3,300 km, of any country in continental Africa, with substantial untapped fishery resources thanks to a unique phenomenon called upwelling which occurs off Ras Hafun towards the end of October every year due to, among other factors, the reversing monsoon winds.

Conservative estimates have put the country’s yearly sustainable marine production at between 300,000 and 500,000 metric tonnes. Prior to the civil war, available fisheries statistics show that the official annual marine output stood at 20,000 metric tons a mere 4 per cent of the potential production. Half of this catch was landed by the country's estimated 4,000 artisanal fishermen and the rest by licensed foreign fishing vessels. If fully exploited, the fisheries output could indeed contribute substantially to the country’s gross national product.

In spite of its long coastline and the abundant marine resources, however, successive governments in Somalia have overlooked the potential of the fisheries sector, treating it instead as if it were a non-viable entity not worth developing. As a result, the country has failed to develop the expertise and infrastructure essential for the management and growth of this sector.

The coastal regions, save for the big cities with deep-water ports, remain the least developed parts of the country. Access to the many fishing settlements that dot the coastline is hampered by impassable roads and non-existent telephone and postal services. So if, say, pirate ships are spotted fishing illegally offshore of one of these settlements, it can take several days before the relevant authorities in the bigger towns are notified.

Because of the remoteness and/or the inaccessibility of the administrative posts bordering the rich fishing grounds, coupled with the navy’s inability to monitor and patrol the entire coastline, there has always been some pirate fishing in Somali waters – though on an insignificant scale compared with what goes on today. These illegal fishing activities have been aided and abetted by rich distant-water fishing nations to placate their disgruntled fishermen who have been rendered jobless due to the limited-entry fishery policies enforced in those countries.

The prospect of being apprehended and the attendant inconveniences – such as heavy fines, long jail terms (if convicted) plus impounding of the offending ships – however made many captains think twice before venturing into the Somali waters.

Then, in 1991, following the collapse of the Somali government, the floodgates were opened and foreign fishing vessels from all corners of the world, from as far afield as the EU, Japan and Russia invaded the area with the sole aim of plundering Somalia’s marine resources. Indifferent to both the short and long-term impact of their activities on the environment, they used a range of internationally banned methods and equipment.

Although the entire coastline has been invaded, the bulk of the incursions are off the northeastern coast, where most of the country's trawlable areas are concentrated. The invading ships, as they are locally known, are so crowded off some stretches of the Puntland (northeast) coast that the glow that emanates from their combined lights at night can be mistaken for a well-lit metropolitan city. During an Unctad-funded workshop for Somali businessmen held in Dubai in 1998, the participants were told that at any one time there are over 300 foreign-owned vessels – neither reported, regulated nor paid for – conducting pirate fishing off the Puntland coast alone.

The trawlers are no ordinary ships, they are intimidatingly big, menacingly powerful and are capable of not only towing trawls capacious enough to confortably accommodate a medium-sized aeroplane apiece, but also of processing tonnes and tonnes of marine products onboard in a single six-hour shift. They target only high-grade marine products such as shrimps, lobsters and demersal fish that fetch high prices on international seafood markets. Of course, the trawlers' nets don’t discriminate between the expensive target species and the unwanted, low-value fish called "bycatch" but sweep up anything and everything in their path. The majority of the netted organisms are, needless to say, dumped overboard dead or dying.

In addition, they trawl over highly sensitive biotopes in the near-shore ecosystems, which many marine organisms use as nursery and breeding grounds. One does not need to be a marine scientist to imagine the trail of destruction they leave behind, employing as they do nets with mesh sizes so small that even juvenile fish cannot escape them. Once productive swathes of seabed have been transformed overnight into marine deserts.

Apart from these destructive fishing practices, Somalia's marine waters have become dumping grounds for all sorts of industrial waste, mostly toxic and radioactive in nature. Surely, by any standards, there is an environmental time bomb waiting to explode in Somalia. And, if and when the bomb explodes it will not bring down Somalia alone, but will sweep across the region like wildfire. Adjacent countries such as Kenya and Tanzania, which share wind and ocean-current regimes with Somalia, will suffer the most.

Meanwhile, those suffering on an immediate basis are the local communities who depend upon these fisheries for their livelihood. The trawlers sweep up and destroy the stationery fishing nets and traps set by subsistence fishermen in the near-shore areas, overnight turning hitherto self-sustaining families into beggars by destroying the tools of their trade.

For a long time now, the wronged fishermen have been demanding compensation for their destroyed gear from the ship operators as well as a total stop to all illegal-fishing activities in the Somali waters. This, they correctly argue, will save their gear and protect the environment from further damage.

 The fishermen’s demands have not gone down well with the looters, who regard Somalia as a no-man’s-land free for all; and they treat any interference with the smooth running of their looting spree as tantamount to a declaration of war.

When the fishermen try to talk to the trawler captains to solve the problem in an amicable, civilised manner, they invariably meet resistance from hostile crew who spray them with jets of pressurised water, sometimes capsizing the fishermen’s small boats. Such provocations have angered the fishermen, who have begun arming themselves with deadly weaponry and have even acquired speedboats in preparation for bloody confrontations.

To counter this new threat, the looters have devised ways to protect their fishing interests in Somalia. One such way is to hire sections of local militiamen to guard the ships while they are in the Somali waters. Despite their presence aboard the vessels, the fishermen have managed to arrest a number of the trawlers.

Another trick is to conceal the identity of the real owners by registering the vessels using dummy or shell companies in neighboring countries, turning the host nation’s ports into conduits from which looting expeditions to the rich fishing grounds of Somalia are organised. The company to which the Kenyan registered trawler we mentioned at the beginning of this article belongs, is an example.

The war purportedly being waged by the Somali fishermen against foreign trawlers isn’t about making a few thousand dollars in ransom money; rather, 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 looters and their sycophants are crying foul over the fishermen’s "belligerent" activities, accusing them of all sort of crimes from hostage taking to waylaying cargo ships on international maritime routes. With the help of the Western media and sympathetic maritime agencies, the profiteers have managed to tilt world opinion in their favour. Sadly, the Somali defenders don’t even have a government that can look after their interests; neither do they have any forum through which they can air their grievances and are thus reduced simply to what the Western media labels them – pirates. Even the UN Security Council has been made to believe this rubbish.

Let us be fair to both sides and ask ourselves: Who is a pirate? Is the pirate the poor fisherman who is trying to save whatever remains of his once plentiful but now endangered resources? Or is the pirate the thieving captain who is bent on depleting Somalia’s resources to enrich himself and his company at the expense of the poor fisherman?

The answer is screamingly obvious. The Somali proverb "Hashu iyadaa geella cunaysa cabaadaysana" which can be loosely translated as "the she-camel who bites other camels but at the same time screams as if she were the one being bitten" best describes the looters’ plundering and hypocritical finger-pointing tactics.

The proliferation of the fishing vessels is the root cause of the whole problem, for there was not a single hijacking incident reported in Somalia before these uninvited guests visited the area.

It is on record that a dozen or so innocent cargo ships have suffered at the hands of a few greedy, armed Somalis. However, some analysts believe that the attacks were instigated by a third party intent on discrediting the fishermen’s struggle.

Although no one can condone any kind of violence, be it piracy, resource looting or hostage taking, what Somali fishermen are doing right now to protect their resources from marauding ships is within the limits of their basic human rights. Their ultimate goal is to bring to an end to the illegitimate exploitation of the fisheries resources of Somalia.

It is indeed the responsibility of every Somali to protect and jealously defend his/her resources from depletion in order to leave behind a legacy for future generations. This is extremely important at a time when the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 60 to 70 per cent of the world’s major fisheries are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted.

*Abdirahman Jama Kulmiye, a postgraduate student in the Department of Zoology at the University of Nairobi, formerly worked for Somalia's Ministry of Fisheries as Assistant Fleet Manager at Somali Marine Products, Kismayo.

Andrew Mwangura
P.O. Box 92273
Mombasa,80102 Kenya.
Tel: 00254 41 312058
Cell:00254 721 393458
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