International firms stand accused of fish piracy

Sunday April 26 2009

By KEVIN KELLEY

Lawlessness off the Somalia coast involving overfishing and toxic-waste dumping is being ignored amidst the uproar over attacks on international shipping, some analysts are charging.

For years, Somalis had complained to the United Nations and the European Union “when the marine resources of Somalia were pillaged, when the waters were poisoned, when the fish was stolen, creating poverty in the whole country,” Kenyan writer Mohamed Abshir Waldo, told a national radio audience in the United States last week. “They were totally ignored.”

Beth Tuckey, an activist with the African Faith and Justice Network in Washington, wrote in a recent commentary that focusing solely on one kind of piracy – “holding ships and people for ransom” – distorts the actual situation of Somalis living on the coast.

“Having over-fished in their own oceans, many European, Middle Eastern and Asian fishing companies perceived the 1991 state collapse in Somalia as an opening to begin business in foreign waters,” Ms Tuckey said. “Large trawlers appeared off the coast, scraping up $300 million worth of seafood every year, depriving coastal Somalis of their livelihood and subsistence. Foreign corporations also saw it as a great location to discreetly dump barrels of toxic waste, thereby causing death and disease among the Somali population.”

Taking a similar perspective, the US-African Chamber of Commerce is calling on President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to address all forms of “international maritime violations off the Somali coast.”

In addition to stopping the seizure of vessels, the United States and other powers should prevent “illegal dumping of chemical toxic waste [and] illegal fishing,” says Martin Mohammed, the chamber’s president.

He traces the upsurge in Somali pirate attacks to the 2006 US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia that initially routed an Islamist force that had established control over broad parts of the country.

The Islamists had provided much of Somalia “with rule of law and a functional society,” Mr Mohammed says.

Chaos have returned to the country in the past two years, “leaving the people of Somalia in dire conditions [and] leaving the coast unprotected,” Mr Mohammed adds.

Allegations of illegal fishing in Somalia waters were raised last year by the United Nations’ special envoy for Somalia. “Because there is no government, there is so much irregular fishing from European and Asian countries,” Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah told reporters in July 2008.

He added that the proceeds from illegal fishing help perpetuate the violence that has reigned in Somalia for the past 18 years. Illegal fishers are paying corrupt officials or warlords for protection or to secure fake licenses, Ould Abdallah said.

A UN report two years ago estimated that poaching in the rich fishing grounds off Somalia amounts to a $300 million a year enterprise.

“It’s been like a long gold rush for Thai, European, Yemeni and Korean boats,” Abdulwali Abdulrahman Gayre, the Puntland vice minister of ports and fisheries, told a Chicago Tribune reporter last October.

“We have some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. Scientists say it is like a rainforest of fish. But our fishermen can’t compete with the foreigners in big ships who come to steal from our waters.”