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Somali Coastguards fend off illegal fishing and waste dumping

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

Recently, the HMCS Fredericton sailed out of the port of Halifax for a mission that includes fighting "sea piracy" off the coast of Somalia. Canadian tax money is going into this operation as well as the labour of Canadian soldiers. The recent NATO "International Security Forum" in Halifax had "securing the seas" as one of the issues on the table, exemplifying the point that Canada will be expected to support more military action against Somalis. Additionally, the fight of the Somali fishermen against commercial pillaging of fish is an issue that should be of importance to all people who try and make a living from fishing in the face of destrucutive commercial fishing. Many communities in Atlantic Canada understand that struggle well. If the illegal fishing off the coast of Somalia is allowed to continue, without being challenged by global fishing communities and other allies, a precedent is set whereby the actions are legitimized. With the precedent set, other communities will have more difficult times in fighting the same struggle. Walls of silence are barriers too.   




“We don't consider ourselves pirates. We consider pirates those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”--accused Somali pirate, Sugule Ali (30 September 2008),  

Would anyone really believe a pirate? No, likely not, but people are more apt to believe a coastguard.   

Somali voices and historical context – missing from major Canadian media coverage of the issue – change the conversation completely. Add in these layers, and they are not just “pirates”, but can also be seen as defenders of the Somali coastline. Intermixed in the activities of accused sea pirates  – as Sugule Ali alluded to – is a defense against waste dumping and illegal fishing. The defensive activity explains why 70 per cent of Somalis “strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence”, as found by the Independent Somali news site, WardheerNews.  

The story of the coastguards starts more than a generation ago. 

Following severe droughts in 1974 and 1986, tens of thousands of nomads, whose livestock were wiped out by the droughts, were re-settled all along the villages on the long, 3300 km Somali coast. They developed into large fishing communities whose livelihood depended on inshore fishing. Then, in 1991, with the collapse of the Barre government and escalation of civil war, illegal fishing trawlers started to trespass and fish in Somali waters. They attacked Somali fishermen as part of their incursions, pouring boiling water on the fishermen in canoes, destroyed their nets and crushing smaller boats. Since Somalia did not have an official navy and only had a “transitional” federal government, opportunists saw that, off the coast of Somalia, they could get away with bloody murder.  

But Somali fishermen responded, arming themselves. The illegal fishers increased their weaponry, and the process continued. Eventually, it wasn't just about the fish anymore for Somalis, but reparations as well. This is where “sea piracy” arises. Entire communities have based themselves on the economy generated from the reparations / ransoms, predominantly in the semi-autonomous Puntland state in Somalia. They have their own de facto governments with written constitutions. 

The fight being waged by the Somali fishermen is no small matter. The fishermen are up against a monstrous industry. In its report, “Closing the Net: Stopping Illegal Fishing on the High Seas”, the High Seas Task Force (HSTF) puts worldwide value of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) catches at a whopping $4 to $9 billion. IUUs, are estimated take more than $450 million in fish value out of Somalia annually. Ships have come from Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Russia, Britain, Ukraine, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Yemen, Egypt and other countries.  

Whatever the Somali's are getting in ransom for hostages pales in comparison to what illegal fishing is taking in. Somalis collect up to $100 million a year in ransom according to Peter Lehr, a Somalia piracy expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. This is more than four times smaller than the value of illegal fishing.  

" ... (the international community is) talking only about the piracy problem in Somalia, but not about the destruction of our coast and our lives by these foreign ships." -- Jeylani Shaykh Abdi, Somali fisherman (January 8, 2009). 

Fishermen in Somalia have appealed to the United Nations and the international community to help them rid the country's shores of foreign ships engaged in illegal fishing. But the responses have been disappointing, such as from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 2005, saying that it is "impossible to monitor their fishery production in general, let alone the state of the fishery resources they are exploiting.” 

But catching wily pirates on the high seas appears to be totally in the realm of possibilities. Two UN Resolutions (1816 and 1838) against sea piracy were approved in 2008. They gave a green light for countries to send military forces to combat sea piracy, and many, including Canada, have joined the foray. But – ignoring recommendations of Somalis – the resolutions do not make any reference to the fishing piracy, helping enable such activities further. Under the UN mandate, international forces are only legally allowed to combat the Somalis, giving protection to “international” vessels, which include illegal fishing vessels.    

In the end, the only ones who have come to the aid of poor Somali communities are the de facto Somali coastguards.  

In probably one of the more well-known examples of Somali coastguards versus illegal fishers, Spanish fishing trawler Alakrana was seized October 2, 2008. Abdi Yare, one of the coastguard spokespeople, made this statement as part of the negotiation: "We demand four million US dollars (2.8 million euros) as a payment for illegally fishing in Somalia. After that we will release the fishing boat. Unless those conditions are met we will not make any deal ... The amount of fish they have stolen from Somalia is more than the amount of the ransom we have demanded. -- Agence France-Presse Oct 14, 2008.  

Somali coastguards have caught many illegal fishing vessels over the last 20 years. In 1991 and 1999, according to Somali journalist Mohamed Abshir Waldo, Somali fishermen have caught: Yue Fa No.3, Chian Yuein No.232, and FV Shuen Kuo No.11 (all registered in Taiwan); MV Airone, MV De Giosa Giuseppe and MV Antonietta (all registered in Italy); MV Bahari Hindi, (Kenyan registered). That's just a sample from only two years.


But the fish that were illegally taken out of the coastal waters off Somali may not be nearly as bad as what was put into the water.  

Following the massive tsunami of December 2004, in response to outcries from Somali people, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) came in to investigate a disturbing finding: rusting containers of toxic waste appearing on the Somali shores.  

Nick Nuttall of UNEP spoke to Al Jazeera news on October 8, 2008 about the subject. He described the following:  

"Somalia has been used as a dumping ground for hazardous waste starting in the early 1990s, and continuing through the civil war there ... European companies found it to be very cheap to get rid of the waste, costing as little as $2.50 a tonne, where waste disposal costs in Europe are something like $1000 a tonne ...  and the waste is many different kinds. There is uranium radioactive waste. There is lead, and heavy metals like cadmium and mercury. There is also industrial waste, and there are hospital wastes, chemical wastes – you name it."  

As a consequence of exposure to the waste, people have been getting very sick, with ailments including abdominal haemorrhages and unusual skin infections, diseases consistent with radiation sickness.  

“One local doctor said he had treated more cases of cancer in one year than he had in his entire professional career before the tsunami.” -- The Ecologist, March 1, 2009. 

So who's doing the dumping? The European Green Party (EGP) followed up on the tsunami's  revelations and identified two of the many companies involved: Italian-Swiss firm, Achair Partners, and an Italian waste broker, Progresso. The EGP presented before the press and the European Parliament in Strasbourg copies of contracts signed between these companies and representatives of the warlords then in power, to accept 10 million tonnes of toxic waste in exchange for $80 million. This was an illegal transaction that Somalis did not consent to, and it padded the bank accounts of both the warlords and the companies who got access to cheap dumping grounds.   

But, as with the illegal fishing, the Somali's have not just watched these crimes of environmental racism take place.  

In October 2008, Somalis captured a Ukrainian ship, the MV Faina, which was carrying a suspicious shipment of tanks and military hardware. The coastguards demanded $8 million ransom as a means of "reacting to the toxic waste that has been continually dumped on the shores of our country for nearly 20 years. . . . The Somali coastline has been destroyed, and we believe this money is nothing compared to the devastation that we have seen on the seas."-- Januna Ali Jama, coast guard spokesman. 

Whether against illegal fishers, waste dumpers or mainly for money, what is being expressed in various forms of sea piracy – the high-jacking and ransoming that offends sensibilities of many – arises out of desperation and alienation. The fishermen have only been supported by various environmental and other rights groups, but have received no support from other governments in trying to stop the devastation that is the root cause of their activities. Thus, they have relied on their own initiatives and invoked the wrath of richer nations. Perhaps it should not be surprising that many of these same countries declaring war on sea piracy – European Union countries, Russia, Japan, India, Egypt and Yemen – are also implicated in the toxic pollution of the Somali coastline and decimation of the fish stocks. The bottom line is that powerful States and the UN will not allow the example of people taking survival needs into their own hands to persist, lest it spread. And they also won't take their own corporations to task, especially not for poor Africans. So, the Somalis are left lonely on their seas, facing struggles that parallel rural fishing communities here. Their cries against the corporate pirates go unanswered.


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