Somalia: Fishermen Driven From the Sea By Illegal Trawlers

Nairobi — More than two years after Somali officials announced plans to regulate fishing in the country's troubled waters, illegal trawlers continue to operate while local fisherman suffer attacks and depleted catches.

The fishermen are not only losing a way of life but their lives, according to Somali fishermen.

"We are not only being denied our fish but our lives are also in danger," said Mohamed Abdirahman, a member of Bosasso fishing cooperative, in the self-declared autonomous region of Puntland, northeastern Somalia.

"Early this year we lost five members after their boat was run over by a big ship and I can tell you it was no accident," said Abdirahman.

Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa, at 3,330km, with major landing sites in Kismayo, Mogadishu, Merka and Brava in the south, and Eil, Bargal, Bolimog, Las Korey and Berbera, and Bosasso in the north. It also has large fish species, including tuna, mackerel; as well as smaller ones such as sardines.

Mohamed Moalim Hassan, Somalia's minister of fisheries, told IRIN the interim government was trying to establish the country's internationally recognized maritime boundaries and enact laws to regulate fishing in its waters.

"We are in the process of establishing the maritime zone of the republic of Somalia in accordance with the Law of the Seas," he said.

Hassan said any foreign vessel currently fishing in Somalia's territorial waters did not have a legal license from the government. "They are doing so illegally."

Boiling water

According to Abdirahman, some of the foreign trawlers spray Somali fishermen with boiling water from cannons. He said many members of his cooperative were no longer venturing far from the coastline.

"We stay close to the coast, maybe two miles from the shore, to avoid the military ships and the big foreign fishing vessels," he said, adding they were catching less and less fish.

Mohamed Farah Aden, Puntland's minister of fisheries, told IRIN Somali fishermen had become victims of pirates, foreign fishing trawlers and the international navies.

"Our information is that fishermen were killed, or had their fishing gear taken or destroyed by all three," Aden said.

Abdullahi Nur Hassan, a fisherman in the southern port city of Kismayo, told IRIN on 22 June: "Many of my friends have quit fishing because they are afraid of falling victim to these big ships [foreign trawlers], pirates or military ships."

Hassan said foreign vessels had rammed their boats and taken their fishing nets on numerous occasions. "It is daylight robbery but they are getting away with it," he said.

NATO forces, as well as those from other countries, such as Russia, India and China, continue to police Somalia's coastline.

Hassan said he wished the naval forces would also protect them from the foreign fishing vessels.

Danger of piracy

Piracy off Somalia's coast has made life doubly dangerous for fishermen, who have been kidnapped and held for days so that pirates can use their boats, said Hassan.

Gangs of pirates steal boats and engines, and are driving some fishermen out of business, according to an Oceans Beyond Piracy report.

"Armed security teams have opened fire on fisherman believing them to be pirates because they were holding AK47s," said Wing Commander Paddy O'Kennedy, outgoing spokesman for the European Union Naval Force Somalia (EU NAVFOR). "What they didn't know, because their training hadn't been that good, is that everyone out there carries AK-47s or else their fish will be pinched."

According to the report, there is no documentation on Somali fishermen killed by private security companies or armed guards who mistake them for pirates.

However, Hassan, the Kismayo fisherman, said the international military response to piracy sometimes wrongly targeted fishermen.

"We are getting hit from all sides," he said. "We are not only targeted by these foreign fishing vessels but we also fall victim to the military ships, which don't differentiate between pirates and fishermen."

Mohamed Abshir Waldo, a consultant based in Mombasa, said: "It appears that as far as the naval forces are concerned any Somali on the sea is a pirate."

However, Cmdr Harrie Harrison, EU NAVFOR spokesman, denied this claim. "There is no policy of deliberate interaction with any Somali vessel that isn't showing deliberate signs of piracy," he said.

Sixteen-foot climbing ladders and boarding equipment, taken together with guns on display, make it easy to distinguish between fishermen and pirates, according to Harrison.

"It all adds up in the way that if a policeman came across someone late at night with a balaclava and a wrecking ball, he'd say this guy isn't just walking home from the pub," he said. "I can assure you that vessels are not picked upon simply because of their size."

Harrison added there were very few Somali fishing vessels out at sea where the naval forces patrolled.

Somalia's industrial fishing fleet, which only came into existence in the early 1970s with Soviet support, has been moribund for years, its ships in Aden Harbour in Yemen. The sector currently consists of small vessels for subsistence fishing and small-scale commercial operators

Illegal fishing, dumping

But, according to Mombasa-based consultant Waldo, fishermen have no way of standing up to illegal trawlers and ships dumping toxic, nuclear or other waste without being labelled pirates by military forces.

Illegal fishing and dumping by foreign vessels was the original impetus for bands of fishermen to become pirates. According to the Oceans Beyond Piracy report, these problems have never been adequately addressed.

Waldo said Somali elders asked for NATO assistance in combating the illegal fishing and dumping, but were told there was no mandate for that. He said some rich nations turned a blind eye as hundreds of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing vessels plundered Somalia's maritime wealth and dumped toxic and nuclear waste.

Aden said some of the foreign vessels illegally fishing in Somali waters were owned by the some of the same countries patrolling its shores. "So you can say that [foreign trawlers] have found protection." He added, "the problem is no one is protecting our people."

Aden said the Puntland authorities had raised the issue with the international forces patrolling the Somali coast but "we have no tangible response."

Despite the fact that most piracy proceeds are spent in the local economy, many Somalis suffer under the shadow economy created by piracy, according to a May report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The report said Somali communities "bear a considerable brunt of the effects of piracy... There are numerous reports about the extensive inflation in the cost of basic goods following successful piracy attacks. This false economy has led to dramatic price increases."

These distortions send prices up four-fold, and hurt regular Somalis who can no longer afford basic goods. "They even affect marriage costs since families expect higher dowries," said UNODC.

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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