You’d never know it from the media, but the ‘Somali pirates’ started out as the good guys.

When Siad Barre’s regime collapsed in 1991, official policing in Somalia disappeared on and offshore.  On land,  the result has been 18 years of anarchy — gang rule, civil war, no public services,  chaos, etc.

Offshore, the scenario was different. Until 1991, Somalia’s coastal waters supported a small fishing industry that fed families, sent a little food to the cities and earned some export income from canning.  The government sold fishing licenses and prevented the worst overfishing.

Without a government, it became global open season on Somalia’s fish.  The local fishing industry was completely disrupted.  Canning for export stopped.  Local fish catches shrank as stocks were depleted by foreign fleets.

The first pirates were not Somali and weren’t called pirates.   The victims, however, were Somalis and the world paid no attention:  

Somalia’s enormous, resource-rich maritime domain is…threatened by rampant illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing on the part of foreign fishing vessels keen to exploit the absence of offshore surveillance and enforcement efforts. (data drawn from Plundered Waters: Somalia’s Maritime Resource Insecurity, a forthcoming paper by Clive Schofield, Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security).

Hundreds of foreign boats have fished in Somali waters in recent years, from Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Belize, Honduras, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Belize is a stand-in for France and Spain, both of whom have registered boats there to evade EU rules.  Even when there was a government, Somalia’s small coast guard had its hands full patrolling the longest coastline in Africa — over 2000 miles long.

Most foreign pirates steal “tunas, largely yellowfin, longtail, bonito and skipjack, as well as big mackerels, such as Spanish mackerel”. Some take anchovies, shark and several kinds of lobsters.

Estimates as to the value of [illegal]catches from Somalia’s maritime jurisdiction vary from in excess of US$90m to US$300m per year…(quoting UN figures). Several UN agencies — Food and Agriculture (FAO) and the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) have long known about the plundering of Somali resources, and that the criminal fishing fleets use fine mesh nets, illegal drag nets and even dynamite (reported in a recent Der Spiegel article).

Somalis don’t walk away from fights, but the foreign boats that muscled in on their territory were bigger and overpowered the locals, sometimes ramming their boats or dousing them with boiling water.

The Somalis wised up.  The weapons bazaar in Mogadishu leveled the playing field, providing cheap AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades.  Around 2006 the tide turned as the fisherman started taking more boats hostage.  With their clever use of teams of small, fast boats operating from a mother ship they went further from shore and attacked bigger targets.  They found it surprisingly easy, and the ransoms came rolling in.

The fishermen, victims of economic terrorism trying to feed their families, had turned the tables. The terrorists — the criminal fishermen — were protected by their governments, whose complaints today about the harm to shipping by today’s pirates reek of hypocrisy.

The new harvest from the sea soon caught the attention of the criminal gangs that dominate Somalia, who understood that there was richer prey than the odd fishing boat.  Ten percent of the world’s commercial sea traffic passes through the Suez Canal and has to run the gauntlet of the Gulf of Aden off the Horn of Africa.

With a little seed money, maybe from ‘investors’ in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, the coastal ‘neighborhood watch’ was taken over by outsiders — big time gangsters with no connection to the fishermen. Around the time that the world began calling them pirates, criminal gangs were setting up a lucrative racket that had nothing to do with the poor fisherman.

Young Somalis risked their lives, taking on the world’s navies and merchant marine in their small boats.  Poor and naive, often mere teenagers, they were dazzled by payoffs that brought them luscious brides and lavish weddings, SUVs and hero worship.  The real profits, of course, went to the moneybags, who never left their air conditioned villas.  Lawyers in London handled negotiations. Insurance companies paid the ransoms and cried crocodile tears as they raised their premiums and increased their profits. (Thousands of shipowners paid many more millions in inflated premiums than the ransoms the insurers paid out.) They will cry real tears when this is over.

The conditions that led to the problems in Somalia have not changed.  Without a government, the gangsters/pirates are able to bring their victims close to shore and wait.  They don’t harm the crews, don’t steal cargoes and don’t damage the ships.  Why kill the goose?

Despite their success today, there is no future in big time piracy.  The rich payoffs have attracted too many pirates, who captured too many ships.  This forced governments to send their navies.  More pirates are being caught and fewer ships taken.

The poor fishermen will end up where they started, at best.  The world now thinks of them as criminals. Foreign fleets still fish in Somali waters. There is still no government to protect their fishing grounds.

When the gangsters and the foreign navies are gone, the fishermen might have to go back to what worked before: a ‘neighborhood watch’ that catches intruding fisherman and collects enough ransom money to feed their families.  If nothing else has changed, I will be on their side.