Fish Theft

Publish On: 1 year ago

Somali waters have high fisheries production potential, but the sustainability of those fisheries is compromised by the presence of foreign fishing vessels, many of them fishing illegally. The Somali domestic fishing sector is small and relatively nascent, but foreign vessels have fished in Somali waters for at least seven decades. Some foreign vessels and their crew have been a direct, physical threat to Somali artisanal fishers. Many foreign vessels directly compete for fish, reducing fish populations and destroying marine habitat through bottom trawling. In this paper, we reconstruct foreign catch in Somali waters from 1981–2014 and classify the health of seventeen commercial fish stocks. Foreign fishing has increased more than twenty-fold since 1981, and the most rapid increase occurred during the 1990s after the collapse of the Federal government and ensuing civil war. We estimate foreign fishing vessels caught 92,500 mt of fish in 2014, almost twice that caught by the Somali domestic fleet. Iran (48%) and Yemen (31%) accounted for the vast majority of foreign fish catch in the most recent year of analysis. Although responsible for only 6% of total foreign catch, trawl vessels disproportionately impact public perception of foreign fishing. We find they trawled over 120,000 km2 of marine seabed in nearshore waters during 2010–2014. Foreign IUU fishing in Somali waters is fueling public anger and perpetuating conflict in five ways: by directly competing with the domestic fishery; through links to piracy; through nearshore illegal and destructive bottom trawling; by contributing to regional political conflict over vessel licensing; and by reducing long-term livelihood security. Significant levels of foreign fishing combined with inconsistent governance means Somalis are not fully benefiting from the exploitation of their marine resources at a local or national level, leading to insecurity at both scales.



Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing by foreign fishing vessels in Somali waters has been problematic for decades (Musse and Tako, 1999; Lehr and Lehmann, 2007; Weldemichael, 2012; Sumaila and Bawumia, 2014). The central government collapsed in 1991, and the ensuing increase in foreign fishing became a justification for piracy against fishing vessels (Weldemichael, 2012; Sumaila and Bawumia, 2014). Successful pirate attacks and large ransom payments turned the attention of pirate gangs to more valuable merchant vessels. The growing risk of piracy caused some distant water fishing fleets targeting tuna to avoid Somali waters during the mid-2000s (Indian Ocean Tuna Commission [IOTC], 2013). While piracy has declined (Oceans Beyond Piracy, 2014), foreign fishing within sight of Somali communities continues to galvanize public anger (Anon, 2015b).

Most foreign fishing in Somali waters is either illegal, unreported, or unregulated. The Somali Fisheries Law, passed in December 2014 (Federal Republic of Somalia Ministry of Natural Resources, 2014), banned bottom trawling by domestic and foreign vessels (Article 33), made all prior licenses null and void (Article 10), and reserved the first 24 nm of Somali waters for Somali fishers (Article 3).

Prior to passage of this law, however, the designation as “legal” or “illegal” for any specific foreign vessel was politically and legally complicated. Before the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1972, Somalia designated its 200-nm zone a territorial sea. UNCLOS designates this the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Consequently, nations challenged Somalia’s territorial waters claim and used it as an excuse to fish in Somali waters beyond 12 nm without licenses. Foreign vessels also obtained licenses from non-governmental sources, such as local authorities, local leaders, or even warlords (Anon, 2010a; Sumaila and Bawumia, 2014; BBC, 2015). Corruption around these de facto licenses was widespread (Schbley and Rosenau, 2013), and captains and owners of foreign vessels were either ignorant of or complicit in such corruption. In some cases, license fees were exchanged for “protection” from pirates. Vessels from Yemen directly traded ice and fuel for access to fish in Somali waters (Lovatelli, 1996). All told, a significant number of foreign vessels took advantage of the instability in Somalia and never attempted to obtain a fishing license from any authority (Glaser et al., 2015). Disagreement and confusion over authority to issue licenses made many countries hesitant to engage in those modalities and encouraged some fleets to circumvent legal channels or refuse to fish in Somali waters at all. Finally, some fleets were offered protection by regional political elites–including protection from pirate attacks and the presence on-board of armed Somali guards–which destabilized the maritime space and the procurement of legal licenses (Dua, 2013).

A significant amount of fishing in Somali waters goes unreported to the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS). Domestic and foreign vessels are now legally required to report all catch (Somali Fisheries Law, Article 24), but the FGS does not have the capacity to collect nationwide catch statistics, and they have not reported catch to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) since 1988 (Glaser et al., 2015). While foreign vessels that catch tuna should report to the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), foreign vessels in Somali waters that are not catching species under IOTC management do not report to any agency.

Finally, Somalia does not have sufficient management measures to regulate fishing in their waters. Existing regulations are not enforced, and scientific studies are decades old (Stromme, 1984). Consequently, detailed fisheries knowledge does not exist. Unregulated fishing increases the risk of overfishing, and management without regular scientific input can lead to resource depletion (Pitcher et al., 2002; Agnew et al., 2009).

The presence of foreign fishing vessels has been a source of conflict in the Somali maritime space for decades. Here, we outline some of the mechanisms driving this conflict and provide quantitative support. This research builds from Glaser et al. (2015) with updated numbers and methods for estimating catch by foreign vessels. We argue all foreign fishing in Somali waters is unregulated, most is unreported to Somali authorities, and unknown amounts of it are illegal. Consequently, IUU fishing by foreign vessels is a significant threat to Somali fisheries. While the mere presence of foreign fishing vessels causes direct and visible conflict with the domestic sector, the indirect effects of foreign trawling and potential declines in valuable fish stocks exacerbates these effects.

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