Connie Kargbo is an associate producer at Worldfocus and a native of Sierra Leone. She writes here of the story behind Somali piracy.
There is news today that Somali pirates have hijacked a Chinese fishing vessel in the waters off the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean — a move that seems to be expanding their reach to the east.
Last week, Somali pirates who had hijacked a Spanish fishing vessel with 36 crew members on board in early October demanded a ransom of $4 million in exchange for the release of the hostages.
The ransom demand is average — pirates these days usually request between $2 and $6 million for the release of ships and hostages. The difference is that the pirates are calling the $4 million a payment for illegally fishing off the coast of Somalia. It may come as a surprise to some but this little-known dispute about Somalia’s fishing industry is at the root of the ongoing pirate situation today.
When Somalia’s central government was overthrown in 1991 the country quickly deteriorated into what many are now calling a failed state. With the lack of central leadership and ongoing clan warfare, law enforcement took a backseat to the violence.
This lawlessness spread to the coast of Somalia with the arrival of illegal foreign fishing vessels. Many of these vessels did not have the proper rights to fish in these waters, but the lack of regulation made it easy for them to fish to their hearts content. Some of these ships were owned by countries now patrolling the coast of Somalia, the country’s police chief said Wednesday.
This illegal industry in turn began to hurt local Somali fishermen who were dependent on the fish they caught. Competition from foreign fishermen depleted fish resources and also brought toxic waste to Somali waters.
Fearing for their livelihoods, local fisherman began patrolling off the coast of Somalia and fining ships that were found to be illegally fishing in the area. Just as some illegal foreign fishing vessels found an untapped and lucrative zone to make money, in time the Somalis who patrolled the coast exploited their newly found money-making opportunity.
What began as a way for Somalis to protect their livelihood eventually became the livelihood. Reprimands and small fines for ships found illegally fishing became hijackings and million dollar ransoms on any ship that was caught, regardless of whether or not the ships actions were illegal. And so pirates were born off the coast of Somalia.
Nowadays most Somali pirates are not former fisherman but stealth businessmen looking to make a buck. And while illegal fishing vessels have largely been replaced by foreign navies patrolling the coast on the lookout for pirates, within Somalia the problems of rampant violence and insecurity still persist. Until there is an overhaul of the country’s fundamental problems, crime along the coast of Somalia will largely be a reflection of the country’s internal conflict.
- Connie Kargbo
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