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Fishermen & the Failed State


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:54 pm

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I have no doubt that there was significant foreign illegal fishing in the period after 1991 and probably continuing up until recent times. My point is that within the past year or so illegal fishing has become so dangerous that I suspect there is not much of it occurring. As of mid-June, Somali pirates were holding 17 foreign ships. Only three of the 17 were fishing boats—a Taiwanese tuna boat, an Egyptian fishing boat, and the Shugaa-al-Madhi, which I believe is an Egyptian fishing boat. Were they fishing illegally? Who knows? They might have been. It does suggest that there is still some illegal fishing going on. But the vast majority of the ships that have been seized have been freighters and not fishing boats. It is just too difficult for fishing vessels to operate in the region. The amount they can earn doesn’t justify the risk. Fishing vessels are sitting ducks and their chances of being seized are very high.

Waldo also cites the issue of the illegal dumping of the hazardous materials—industrial, toxic, and nuclear waste—in both off-shore and on-shore areas of Somalia.
Initially, I was a little skeptical about the toxic waste dumping allegations because there was so little proof of it. There is no environmental organization in Somalia to collect data to prove what is going on. There was one report by Italian journalists several years ago that seemed to document at least one case of toxic waste dumping. It was clear that a lot of gunk came up on Somali shores but it wasn’t clear what it was. On the other hand, Al Jazeera ran a story in April quoting a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) representative, Nick Nuttall, based in Nairobi, Kenya, who stated categorically that the coast of Somalia has been used as a dumping ground for hazardous waste beginning in the early 1990s, and continuing through its civil war. Some of the containers washed up on Somali beaches after the 2004 tsunami. He added the waste included radioactive material, lead, heavy metals, cadmium, and mercury. After the containers washed ashore, Nuttall said hundreds of Somalis fell ill with skin infections, abdominal bleeding, and other ailments. Because of the high level of insecurity in the area, UNEP was unable to make an accurate assessment. That was the first time I have heard an authoritative person indicate that there has been recent toxic waste dumping off the coast of Somalia. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN Secretary General’s representative for Somalia, also commented to Al Jazeera last April that certain unnamed companies are involved in waste dumping off Somalia. He added that in some cases these companies paid Somali officials in the area so they could dump their waste. I am inclined to accept that some toxic waste dumping is continuing and it, too, has to be stopped.

On one hand, countries participating in illegal fishing, at great profit, are the same countries that signed onto UN resolutions—specific only to the coast of Somalia—authorizing their participation in joint operations to thwart piracy. On the other hand, Somali fishermen complain that there are no protections within those UN resolutions allowing them to fish legally and that they are getting lumped in with pirates. And Somalia’s warlords and quasi government officials take bribes and look the other way regarding illegal fishing and dumping. Waldo claims Somali fishermen perceive international meddling as a way to legally allow foreign illegal fishing in Somali waters while legitimate Somali fisherman are labeled as pirates, thus making them subject to capture by the international task force and subject to prosecution. “In ignoring the principal IUU factor, the origin and the purpose of the shipping piracy, the international community seems to be either misled or pressured to take this one-sided course by powerful interests who want to cover up and protect the profitable business of illegal fishing.”

There may be some truth to that. I think that any naval vessel—whether American or Chinese or Indian or whatever—that is stopping Somali ships is going to be pretty careful about not picking up legitimate Somali fishermen. They don’t want disputes as to what do you do in terms of prosecuting them. I know the US Navy has very strict guidelines as to what they pick up and the collection of evidence. I’d be very surprised, for example, if any American naval vessel made the mistake of capturing legitimate Somali fisherman for transport to courts in Kenya. They might stop a fishing boat, search it, and then conclude that the occupants are only engaged in fishing. When Somali pirates are captured and turned over to Kenyan courts for prosecution, the evidence against the Somalis must be strong. Otherwise, international naval personnel who go to the trouble of transporting them to Kenya are wasting both the time of Somalis and their own time. I can see Somalis making that case and they certainly have legitimate grievances as far as illegal fishing is concerned. There is a long history of it. But the Somalis will tend to twist this sort of thing. The Somalis like to talk about the existence of a Somali coast guard. I don’t think there has been “a Somali coast guard” since the government failed in 1991.

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