Pirates, Warlords and Rogue Fishing Vessels in Somalia's Unruly Seas
Scott Coffen-Smout1

A Lawless Land and Ocean

Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa at c. 3,300 km and a productive upwelling region off the Horn providing significant potential for offshore tuna fisheries development.  The abundant and diverse marine resources, including seabirds, whales, whale sharks, and several dolphin and turtle species offer promise for ecotourism.  This promise, however, stands in stark contrast to current political realities which have developed since the fall of President Siad Barre's regime in 1991 leaving the country without a central government and its waters unrepresented by a recognizable state in the community of nations.  Since there is no one particular political entity that controls Somali waters, each coastal region has self-promoted militia, led by a faction leader, which controls its own area, with some entering into controversial fishing vessel licensing arrangements with foreign countries.  Somalia's coastal and offshore waters are now dangerous for the innocent passage of yachts and commercial vessel traffic, and foreign fishing vessels operating in Somali waters are at risk of being boarded by militia and having their crews taken hostage.  Somali militia, operating from speedboats and posing as coastguard, have worked out the profitability of "coastal patrolling" which includes kidnappings, vessel seizures and ransom demands, all enforced by frequent use of mortars, grenades and small arms.

With the breakdown of civil society, Somalia has degenerated into a no-man's land subject to clan or Islamic Shari'ah law. Owing to continuing unrest in the south, a central government is unlikely to evolve soon.  In its place, a decentralized federation of regional political entities has emerged, including the self-proclaimed but unrecognized Republic of Somaliland in the northwest, the self-proclaimed Puntland State in the northeast, Jubaland in the south near Kismayo, and a future Banadir regional administration around Mogadishu when warlords Hussein Aideed (son of late General Farah Aideed) and Ali Mahdi settle their differences.  Years of internal conflict have damaged infrastructure in the fishery sector and rendered ineffective any previous oil spill response capability, aids to navigation, and search and rescue capacity in a region of high tanker/cargo traffic to and from the Suez Canal through the Gulf of Aden and calling at Mombasa, the East African shipping hub.

A Fishery in Crisis

With no national ocean governance, fisheries policy or management structure in place, Somali fisheries are truly open access.  Somali fisheries are driven principally by foreign interests and demand for high-value tuna, shark and ray fins, lobster, deepwater shrimp and demersal whitefish.  Since it is unknown whether marine resources are being harvested sustainably, biological resources are potentially at risk and may face imminent collapse, affecting long-term socio-economic welfare of coastal communities.  Lobster and shark resources are fished intensely - almost a mining operation.  Local fishing pressure on lobster stocks is very intense due to its being a high-value species for overseas export and relatively easy to harvest.  Biodiversity concerns relate to by-catch of turtles, dolphin, and dugong by foreign vessels in the offshore fishery and the inshore artisanal gillnet fishery, plus destruction of critical reef habitat by foreign trawlers.

With decentralization of fisheries enforcement to the grass-roots level, community empowerment has filled an institutional vacuum as AK47-armed militia protect their perceived property rights, and some have been successful in arresting vessels.  A Taiwanese fishing vessel apprehended off northern Somalia in January 1998 was found to carry a licence of dubious legality, written on ex-Somali government letterhead and signed by a warlord in Mogadishu claiming to represent the previous Barre regime, and providing fishing access rights to demarcated areas of the Somali zone.  The bogus licence was issued under an ongoing licensing scheme set up in 1996 to "authorize" foreign-flagged vessels to fish Somali waters in the 24 to 200 nautical mile zone.  A London-based licensing corporation was given access to waters from the Kenyan-Somali border to about 9 degrees north latitude.  It is unknown who the London-based shareholders are in these companies, but it is alleged that five authorities or clan faction leaders along the Somali coast receive royalties from the corporation through these operations.  Tensions are exacerbated among different Somali sub-regional administrations aware of this activity.

Fishing vessels known to operate off Somalia include the following flags: Belize (either French or Spanish-owned purse seiners operating under flag of convenience to avoid EU regulations); France (purse seiners targeting tuna licensed to the food company Cobrecaf); Honduras (EU purse seiners targeting tuna under flag of convenience); Japan (longliners now operate under licence to the Republic of Somaliland); Kenya (Mombasa-based trawlers); Korea (longliners targeting swordfish seasonally); Pakistan (trawlers, but also targeting shark); Saudi Arabia (trawlers); Spain (purse seiners targeting tuna); Sri Lanka (trawlers, plus longliners targeting shark under licence to the Republic of Somaliland and based at Berbera, Somaliland); Taiwan (longliners targeting swordfish seasonally); and Yemen (trawlers financed by a seafood importer in Bari, Italy). Formerly operated as the Somali national fleet, four Yemeni trawlers and a collector vessel are now based in Aden (see photo).

Yemeni stern trawler (unflagged) fishing illegally with warps visible, 1.5 miles off Bosasso, 28/02/98.

Despite the illegal and counterproductive nature of the offshore fishery, there are constituencies in Somalia and abroad continuing to gain through maintenance of the status quo.  Vessels operating under the licensing scheme have taken 25,000 t annually, including skipjack, big-eye, and yellowfin tuna, swordfish, and marlin.  In 1996, 43 purse seiners and 61 longliners were licensed to fish under this arrangement.  The foreign fleets benefit despite the fact that the legality of the scheme is doubtful under international law.  Vessel operators and Somali royalty recipients are unlikely to support a return to legal operations where a centralized Somali government would license access to the 200-nautical mile EEZ via a legal, transparent process.

Piracy Experiences

The international community encourages local Somali administrative entities to take responsibility for governance of the region, but when authority is exerted over coastal waters the individuals are labelled pirates.  Several incidents involving foreign fishing vessels and cargo vessels arrested by pirates in Somali waters have been reported recently.

In January 1998, militiamen in northeast Somalia captured two foreign ships, a Bulgarian freighter towed by a Syrian vessel.  Elders and businessmen in Bosasso, northeast Somalia, helped negotiate release of the crews on 13 February 1998 in exchange for $110,000.

In April 1998, an Italian-owned trawler based in Mombasa, the MV Bahari One, was held in northeast Somalia for more than 50 days by militia demanding $200,000.  The vessel was impounded for allegedly fishing illegally in Somali waters, possessing firearms, destroying marine life, and stealing marine products from its territorial waters.  In December 1998, the same vessel and its 33-member crew were arrested and taken in Eyl, northeast Somalia, for allegedly violating Somali territorial waters, destroying local fishing nets, and firing at local fishing boats.  A clash occurred before the capture and two Somali fishing boats were destroyed.  The vessel was impounded by militiamen supporting warlord Mohammed Said Hersi, alias General Morgan, who is in control of the southern port town of Kismayo.  Crew members were fined $500,000 and vessel owners warned that the vessel would be confiscated and the crew members jailed if the fine was not paid immediately.  The vessel and crew were released in February 1999 after the owners paid a ransom of $230,000.  Puntland State authorities have since offered to issue fishing licences to foreign vessels conducting "safe fishing operations."

On 27 July, 1998, after being held hostage for 55 days near Bosasso, two Frenchmen (not fishermen) who had been sailing to Réunion, were handed over to a representative of the international community in exchange for $50,000.  On 28 December, 1998, four Ukrainian tourists harvesting sea shells from the yacht Voyager were captured by Somali gunmen near Alula, Puntland.  After one month of detention, they returned to the Ukraine without possessions or the yacht.  In late April 1999, two Finns sailing to Madagascar were abducted off Northeast Somalia by pirates who demanded $50,000 for their release.  Although clan elders said no ransom was paid for their release on May 6 in Bosasso, the kidnappers kept the yacht.

On 4 January, 1999, the MV Sea Johana, a large commercial ferry and its 21-member crew were abducted by Somali gunmen belonging to the al-Itihad al-Islam near Kismayo.  The vessel was sailing from Mombasa to India and apparently experienced technical difficulties.  It was forcefully brought to the port of Bur Gabo, south of Kismayo.  The ransom demand dropped from $6.5 million to $150,000 plus reimbursement of costs incurred while holding hostages.  In April 1999, the MV Sea Johana was a navigational hazard when it was found drifting unmanned off the coast of Mombasa, set adrift by Somali gunmen.

In January 1999, the non-state navy of the Republic of Somaliland under the Commander of Somaliland Armed Forces arrested 40 Yemeni fishermen accused of fishing in Somaliland waters.  Six fishing boats belonging to the Yemenis were confiscated and four Somalis were arrested for collaborating with foreigners.

In March 1999, Somali gunmen hijacked two fishing vessels from Taiwan and Ukraine off Somalia's east coast, taking more than 50 people hostage.  About 50 gunmen in speedboats attacked the Taiwanese boat near Eyl, about 800 km northeast of Mogadishu, capturing more than 30 Taiwanese, Ugandan, Tanzanian and Indian nationals.  In the other hijacking in the same region, one Somali and 20 Ukrainian crewmen were taken hostage.

It was also reported that the MV Ming Bright (22,738 gross tons) was shelled by pirates who put nine holes in its superstructure and containers, but the captain, crew and vessel escaped before pirates could board.  In March 1995, pirates fired a mortar at the British racing yacht, Longo Barda, in the Gulf of Aden, and attempted to board the yacht but sped away when the Canadian Navy ship HMCS Fredericton approached.

Proposed Regional Marine Governance

Despite the breakdown of civil society, Somalia still has international legal responsibilities to treaties it became party to, e.g., CITES, UNCLOS, and the Nairobi and Jeddah Regional Seas Conventions.  However, this responsibility is a hollow one since Somalia is in no position to provide responsible governance and live up to its international civic commitments.  Resolution of the situation therefore raises questions regarding roles of international obligations and regional cooperation in marine resource management in a legal and institutional vacuum. The challenge is to produce a regional institutional proposal to deal with the situation.  At a marine conference in Cape Town, South Africa on 3 December 1998, the UN Secretary General urged African governments to unite to protect their marine and coastal environments.  Kofi Annan said African participation in global efforts to protect marine resources was vital and he promised UN support.  At the same conference, the deputy Secretary General of the Organization for African Unity (OAU), Ahmed Haggag, said that African countries had to prevent non-African countries plundering their coastal resources, and referring to Somalia, he emphasized that solutions must come from within the region.

One solution the Secretary General might consider is a UN-sanctioned caretaker mandate or coastal protectorate given to a regional or international organization to assure international safety of maritime navigation and regional marine resource conservation and protection in Somali waters.  This mandate would create an interim marine management governance framework for Somalia, with legal and policy dimensions and an information repository on Somali marine affairs, coastal biodiversity and fisheries.  This framework could include a brief to represent Somali marine interests at international fora and an offshore fisheries management regime to control and rationally manage offshore fisheries.

The composition of the institutional arrangement should include strong participation from the East African region, with representatives not only of states, but of local communities, stakeholders and NGOs.  Regional intergovernmental organizations which should be involved include the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD), the OAU, and the Conferences of Parties to the Nairobi and Jeddah Conventions.  The Secretariat of the IGAD in Djibouti addresses political and security issues in the Horn of Africa and has become involved in promoting peace and stability and setting up mechanisms to prevent, manage and settle crises.  If a regional, multinational coastguard or naval force were used, regional enforcement of customary international law (e.g., duty to conserve) would be possible if neighbouring states have a mutual interest.  However, to establish an interim marine governance framework, international financial assistance must be secured by IGAD or the Parties to the Nairobi Convention in order to improve safety of navigation for international vessel traffic in Somali waters, to engage Somali participation in ongoing regional marine management processes, and to promote sustainable use of inshore and offshore fisheries.

The maritime issues created by a legal and institutional vacuum in failed states should be addressed by the United Nations General Assembly, as lawless states will continue to arise, e.g., Sierra Leone.  A regional approach may be a useful option to address piracy in Somalia, but it must be cognizant of political realities in the Western Indian Ocean region.  It is suggested that a regional approach to marine governance may also act as a catalyst for wider peace in Somalia.

1. The author survived a six-week UN inter-agency coastal assessment mission to Somalia in February-March 1998.