THE EAST AFRICAN Magazine
Monday, July 9, 2001
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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,
P.O. Box 92273
Tel: 00254 41 312058
Cell:00254 721 393458
Fax: 00254 41 230001