By Jean-Pierre Larroque
After pirates hijacked an Iranian fishing vessel last year near Bosasso, a major seaport in Puntland, Somalia, local authorities observed that the offending boat was casting nets without a license. While piracy has diminished since 2008-2012, when these waters became some of the most lawless in the world, a spate of incidents in 2017-8 has made it clear that the conditions that led to piracy—including incursions from foreign fishing boats—are still a major problem.
Illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing is a constant challenge for Somalia’s fisheries sector, which employs 70,000 workers and contributes $135 million USD annually to the local economy.
“Starting in the early 1990s, frustration with IUU fishers became a justification for attacks on foreign vessels, setting the stage for piracy against the entire shipping industry in the Western Indian Ocean,” said Sarah Glaser, lead author of Securing Somali Fisheries, a comprehensive overview of the industry published by One Earth Future.
Many Somalis will tell you that foreign fishing fleets—most of which are from Iran and Yemen—are the real pirates. Foreign fishing, which extracts three times more fish than Somalis, threatens the local fishing industry and even the lives of the local fishers.
“A lot of the illegal fishing [vessels] have guns…” said Abdisalam Ali, a project coordinator with Kaalo Netherlands Foundation, a non-profit organization that works in the fishing village of Eyl, Puntland. “I asked some fishers [what country the illegal trawlers come from]. They say, ‘we don’t go near them. We have to stay far away.’”
“The biggest challenge is foreign ships that come to our sea illegally at night,” said Jama Ahmed Mohamed of Alla Aamin Fishing, located in Berbera, Somaliland. “If they run you over no one will ever know. They are not registered to anyone.”
“When the boats that no one can control, like the ones from Yemen, come in, you lose like $15,000,” said Abdiweli Farah, owner of Hodan Fishing, operating in Eyl. “You put specific nets and hooks on the ground and they come and take them. There is nothing that you can do except cough up a lot of money.”
Also at stake is the environmental sustainability of Somali waters, which have the potential to support some of the world’s most productive fisheries. Foreign industrial vessels—ignorant of Somali fisheries law—trawl very close to the Somali coastline, jeopardizing its fragile ecosystem. It is estimated that if current fishing practices continue, 40 percent of Somali fish stocks are unsustainable.
In 2014, the Federal Government of Somalia claimed Somalia’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to protect Somali waters from IUU fishing, in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“But, despite all our progress in strengthening fisheries management domestically, we lack the ability to police our vast waters,” wrote Hussein Sheikh Mohamud, Somalia’s former president, in a Project Syndicate op-ed.
This was clear when I visited the region in 2017. While out on a rare patrol with the Somaliland Coast Guard, we quickly encountered a Yemeni ship dumping livestock manure into the ocean just out of sight of Berbera harbor—and in broad daylight.
Despite these challenges, Somali fishers persevere. Local demand is growing. The fishing industry exported 4,000 metric tons of fish commodities valued at $3.1 million USD in 2014. Building the sector’s supporting value chains, such as processing facilities that provide ice to keep fish fresh on the way to market, have created additional jobs for Somalis.
However, the best investment that Somalis can make is to create a strong licensing system for the foreign and domestic fleets that use their waters. Licensing could reinforce governance in its EEZ, but more importantly, it can also boost the economy and prevent over-fishing.
Better fisheries management could ensure the sustainability of the Somali fishing industry, building the country’s economy, protecting its waters, and increasing food security. Combined, these factors can contribute to peace and security in this fragile region.
Jean-Pierre Larroque is a Project Manager and videographer for One Earth Future.