Somali Perspectives on Piracy and Illegal Fishing
Discussions of Somali piracy typically have focused on how piracy has affected the international community, but have rarely incorporated the local perspective. OBP conducted a series of interviews along the Somali coast in order to give a voice to residents' attitudes towards piracy, and bring to light local perceptions of the current situation, including in traditional piracy hotspots.
Essential findings from interviews with Somalis living near the coast were as follows:
- Lack of economic opportunity was identified as the principal driver of pirate recruitment
- Illegal fishing by foreign vessels was characterized as the fundamental grievance that sparked piracy and provides ongoing justification for it
- Locals resent the international navies, believing they are in Somali waters specifically to protect illegal foreign fishing
- Attitudes towards naval forces are much more positive in areas where they have established direct, cooperative relationships with coastal communities
- There is widespread agreement that without changes to the underlying conditions, piracy will return
The rise of piracy off the coast of Somalia captured the world's attention in 2010. Years later, the origins, drivers, current threat and future outlook of Somali piracy remain disputed. Furthermore, the discussion has generally not included the perspective of Somalis themselves. This is an important gap: not only do locals have a unique vantage point to assess the situation, no one else can speak with authority to the motivations of those who turned pirate, or might do so someday.
In order to begin filling this gap, OBP and its partners surveyed coastal residents. Most interviews were conducted by an OBP partner in the state of Galmudug—the historical center of Somali piracy, the area from which most remaining pirate groups deploy, and where piracy hostages are still held. Participants were drawn from community leaders, women's groups, government, youth groups, business associations, and local fishers.
Current State of Piracy
"I don't think pirates can re-organize themselves for the time being to capture ships".
Maryan, Community Chairlady
All those interviewed agree that pirate activity has greatly diminished since its peak. Pirate groups have been displaced from many communities and forced into small patches of territory, for which the Somalis interviewed credit international navies and community pressure. Most, though not all, respondents feel that pirates are currently incapable of hijacking and holding hostage commercial vessels.
Some questions can be meaningfully answered only from a local perspective. What are the drivers of piracy? Why do youths become pirates?
Without exception, every respondent specifically cited one or more of the following: unemployment, lack of education, poverty, and hunger. Notably, all reasons given were exclusively economic in nature; ideological, nationalistic, or clan-based concerns were never mentioned. According to those interviewed, piracy is strictly a response to a lack of economic opportunity.
One additional, overriding driver of piracy was pointed to by every single respondent, and generally characterized as the fundamental grievance: illegal fishing. The perceived impact of illegal fishing can hardly be overstated, and the topic dominated responses in a large majority of interviews.
"Illegal fishing and extreme poverty are the main factors that made fishermen and youths get involved in piracy as an alternative way of getting their daily bread."
According to coastal residents, extensive illegal fishing inflicts damage in several ways. Most obviously, "foreign trawlers" directly compete for fish with local communities, including those where fishing is the traditional, and only, livelihood. Depleted stocks may deny locals not only scarce income, but food.
"Last night 20 families in Lebed did not have dinner. Their livelihood depends on fishing and they will not find in the sea what they put in it. The Lebed community is not in a position to take action against [the foreign trawlers]."
The trawlers not only compete with locals for catch within fisheries, but seek to deny them access outright, with aggressive, armed guards serving as a powerful deterrent. Locals generally cannot identify the originating states of the foreign fishing vessels or the nationalities of their crews, because it is too dangerous to approach them on the water. This prevents residents from fishing in areas where trawlers are operating, which may be the richest fishing grounds.
"Lot of the illegal fishing, they have a gun...I asked some fishers [what country the illegal trawlers come from]. They say, we didn't come near to them. We have to be far away.
Abdi, Development Worker
These fears are grounded in tales of trawlers confronting local fishing vessels without provocation, endangering fishers and destroying their equipment. The most commonly reported form of this was trawlers stealing or cutting locals' fishing nets. Aside from the physical danger, the economic impact is significant: replacing a single net might cost a fisher a month's income or more, and some report having several nets destroyed in a single encounter.
"[There is] a lot of attacking [of] small boats. And sometimes they destroy also nets, fishing nets.
"I talk to communities there, they say, "We don't know what we can do." They are hopelessly. Can see ships illegally fishing, and sometimes they say, every day they destroys, destroy our net. They don't, they don't care. And trash our community."
Abdi, Development Worker
There is little doubt amongst Somalis that conflicts like these provided the original impetus for what became the piracy phenomenon. In the local telling, illegal fishing, and the economic damage it inflicted, left traditional fishing communities so angered and impoverished that they began attacking the illegal fishing vessels, acting as a sort of militia coast guard. However, criminal gangs subsequently saw the profit potential and started hijacking more valuable commercial ships unconnected to illegal fishing.
"Hunger, unemployment, and illegal fishing are the main factors which made our youth get involved in piracy. The only job they have is fishing and their fishing nets were destroyed or taken by trawlers. That is why most of the fishermen turned into pirates."
"The main factor that made them get involved in piracy was that their fishing equipment was destroyed or taken away by the trawlers. Initially [piracy] was a popular uprising against illegal fishing, but later it was taken over by gangs who changed the whole course."
Mahdi, Government Official
On the basis of such stories of abuse and attacks, coastal residents express resentment and hostility towards illegal fishing vessels—and this resentment often extends to the international community's most visible presence along the coast, the warships deployed on counter-piracy operations. Most respondents expressed the belief that the international naval forces are in Somali waters specifically to protect foreign trawlers.
"I see the international navies have a hidden agenda, which is to support those looting our resources."
"The international navies in our sea are there for their interest. They say we are guarding your sea, but the reality is they are engaged in the exploitation of our resources in the sea. They are protecting those trawlers in our sea. If we decided to act against those, they would defend them."
This is not to say that Somalis do not recognize the effectiveness of the navies in halting piracy—a development for which many respondents expressed approval or gratitude. However, the very success of international navies against piracy increases resentment against ongoing illegal fishing.
"They apprehend pirates and hand them over to foreign countries for trial. We are very satisfied that they arrested pirates, but why they don't apprehend those doing illegal fishing in our sea?"
"They capture pirates but they don't capture those taking or destroying our fishing nets. When fishing season comes, you can see tens of the trawlers are in our sea taking our marine resources and no one will help us against them."
Sentiments towards the international navies were not universally or exclusively negative. Attitudes were much more positive or nuanced in those areas where interactions between naval forces and local communities extended beyond counter-piracy, and perceived protection of trawlers. Conducting trainings, providing medical care, donating practical items like outboard motors, and other such activities help counter the perception that the navies are there to hurt rather than help Somalia.
"As the Hobyo community, we have a good relationship with the international navies, particularly those from Denmark. We call them if we receive information that pirates are heading to Hobyo. When pirates see that international navy helicopters are patrolling around Hobyo they go back to Elhur. They also provided medical check-ups to 100 Hobyo residents."
"I have been cooperating with the international navies, particularly those from Denmark, for the past three years. Because of the relation we have with them, piracy on the ground was weakened and they left Hobyo to Elhur coastal village and Harardhere district, which is under Alshabab control. It would be very good if their mandate included illegal fishing and toxic dumping."
Mohamud, Government Official
A central question, for both Somalis and the international community, is of course: what is the future of piracy in Somalia? On the one hand, everyone agrees that piracy against large merchant vessels has been suppressed. The naval forces, with both ships and helicopters, simply make operations too difficult. On the other hand, though, there is equally widespread agreement that without changes in the underlying conditions—most importantly rampant illegal fishing—piracy will return. The only item for debate is whether that resurgence will wait for the departure of the navies.
"Pirates may reorganize themselves if poverty and illegal fishing are not addressed."
"They are now in hibernation, but they may re-organize themselves for two reasons. The first is widespread unemployment among youth in the coastal areas. The second is the IUU fishing in the coastal area, which has made life difficult for those who depend on fishing."
Mahdi, Government Official
"I don't think they can re-organize themselves for the time being as long as the international navies are present in our sea."
"When piracy was in its highest in 2012, the IUU fishing was the lowest and that time our fishermen were getting their enough daily catch, but now, the piracy is its lowest and the IUU fishing is its highest, and our fishermen don't get any fish because the trawlers take or destroy their fishing nets. That is why they are on the verge of another popular uprising against the trawlers, which may again turn into piracy."
Mahdi, Government Official
All respondents emphasized that piracy can only be eliminated permanently by addressing its root causes through development projects—an economic solution to an economic problem. Highlighting again the economic importance of fishing specifically and productive employment opportunities more generally, respondents in coastal areas consistently requested or recommended the provision of fishing boats, gear, and associated equipment like freezer and dock facilities.
"Coastal communities should receive development projects aimed at improving their living conditions such as boats, fishing equipments, freezers, basic education, and vocational trainings."
Mohamed, Former Government Official
"The international community should provide development projects to promote their living standard and deter youth from piracy."
Across many interviews, respondents paint a remarkably consistent picture. The piracy phenomenon began as an armed response to illegal fishing. This "popular uprising" was subsequently hijacked by criminal gangs interested strictly in profit, who attacked other, unrelated vessels. Nonetheless, so long as illegal fishing persists and curtails already-scarce economic opportunities, particularly employment for coastal youths, the potential for piracy will remain. International navies have been effective at treating the symptoms, by making pirate operations untenable, but can be maintained only at great cost and do nothing to address the underlying condition. Somali piracy has been suppressed, not solved.
Ominously, so long as this remains the case, a resurgence of piracy off the coast of Somalia cannot be ruled out—and indeed is seen as an inevitability by many locals.
"I believe the international navies represent a temporary solution for the piracy problem. The international community spent billions of dollars in the sea while they did not spend one dollar on the ground to address the root causes of the piracy which are poverty, unemployment, and illegal fishing. I'm sure piracy will come again if they leave."
Mohamed, Former Government Official
 Interviews were conducted in Somali or English. Responses given in Somali have been translated, while those in English—not the respondents' native language—are transcribed exactly.
 What respondents describe as "illegal fishing" might be better characterized as IUU fishing—that is, illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing. The uncertainty of the regulatory situation and applicable legal regime in the various Somali regions and the EEZ undeniably blurs the lines between these categories. However, for clarity this article adopts the terminology of those interviewed. Whether they are technically correct about the legal status of a given fishing boat (for example, some vessels may in fact possess a license to fish, but obtained it from an issuer whose licensing authority is questionable), the perception of illegality by Somalis is unambiguous.
 While trawlers are in fact only one particular type of fishing vessel, the term was commonly used in interviews to describe any large, industrial fishing ship; that colloquial rather than technical usage is maintained here.
 Repondents indicated that an individual fisher can earn approximately $200 to $400 per month—when the fishing is good—while a single net reportedly costs $270 to $370, depending on quality.
Top image - Somali Dhow in harbor. Photo by Jean-Pierre Larroque / One Earth Future Foundation