Whatever Happened to the Somali Pirates?

With the opening of Paul Greengrass’s film “Captain Phillips,” written by Billy Ray and starring Tom Hanks, the phenomenon of piracy in the waters off the Horn of Africa is back as a topic of discussion.

This CNA study by Ghassan Schbley and William Rosenau says that piracy took off after 2006 after the fall of the Islamic Courts Movement government, which was puritanical and Taliban-like and stopped piracy while it was briefly in power.

Piracy was big business. The CNA report says that in 2006-2011:

” an estimated 3,741 crew members representing 125 different nationalities were held for ransom by pirates, some for as long as three years. Nearly 100 seafarers are estimated to have died at the hands of Somali pirates. The economic costs of Somali piracy have been considerable—$18 billion in annual losses to the world economy in 2010.”

The pirates themselves have a narrative of foreigners exploiting their coastal waters and over-fishing, harming the Somali artisan fishermen, who were the first to turn to piracy out of a mixture of desperation and anger. This origin story is probably true, and the problem of poaching is significant.

CNA notes,

“Somali waters, particularly off the coast of the semi-autonomous state of Puntland in the country’s northeast, contain some of the world’s most important stocks of tuna, anchovies, sharks, rays, lobsters, and shrimps… one study suggests that more than more than half of the total annual catch in the wider western Indian Ocean is illegal. Within Somali waters, possibly hundreds of vessels participate in this depredation. Exact numbers of [poaching] fishermen are impossible to glean, but there is credible evidence that foreign fishing occurred within 200 nautical miles of Somali coasts in the 1990s and early 2000s. As late as 2005, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated 700 foreign-owned vessels engaging in “unlicensed” fishing off the Somali coast. The reduced catches of small-scale Somali artisanal fishers is almost certainly a byproduct of overfishing by commercial and industrial vessels from outside the region.”

But the authors argue that it only takes us so far, because later on piracy grew into a cartel-like business and attracted a lot of people who had never fished a day in their lives. Moreover, they say, most Somalis were never directly affected by the poaching, since once you get away from the coast they aren’t big fish eaters and prefer meat. I’m not sure the effect of poaching can be so easily dismissed, however. There is an enormous opportunity cost for Somali fishermen in having foreigners carry away expensive catch like tuna. They might not have stayed ‘artisanal’ fishermen and could have brought money into coastal towns and cities.

In any case, what is important is that by 2009 the pirates were a criminal cartel.

Moreover, poaching was only one of many forms of economic dislocation that led young men to take up a risky occupation, argues Christian Bueger. The faction-fighting and poor security situation in Somalia, in which the US, Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda were involved, drove some of the despair.

Thus, I wonder if the slightly improved security situation under an elected president is part of piracy’s recent decline. There is also, Bueger says generally less support for piracy, since it turns out to expose local communities to reprisals. But also, the shipping companies have now armed their vessels and there is better international maritime cooperation in forestalling it.

But no one thinks the phenomenon is over. It is worrisome that former pirates have often turned to smuggling, human trafficking, and involvement with al-Qaeda affiliates.

One thing is clear. Effective development aid for Somalia is about the best spent money you could imagine.

Posted in Africa | 19 Responses | Print |

19 Responses

  1. Juan,
    I was in Somalia in June and piracy along the cost has almost completely disappeared. There are three reasons for that:
    – the Navies of many countries are now protecting private shipping vessels, and many of those vessels are now armed or have learned to better defend themselves, thus the cost/benefits of piracy is a lot worse than it used to be;
    – the weakening of the shebabs who worked hand in hand with the pirates, and the fact that they have retreated inland means that piracy now has less “official” sanctioning
    – the relative stability brought by the new government since september 2012, and the end of most of the fighting in the big cities means that there are now a lot more economic opportunities on land. Piracy is no more the only money-making opportunity for the young and unemployed.


    Thomas Cantaloube
    Reporter (for the French website Mediapart)

    • Where were you in Somalia ?

      Hobyo ? Eyl ?

      Because I don’t think you necessarily get the best understanding of the hinterlands from a city (Mogadisco) that is occupied by thousands of foreign military forces.

  2. It is what happens when native fishermen are not protected from poachers. The seeds to the “cartels” were sown under the former governmental dictatorship and flowered when the government changed as fishermen looked for “protection”, only finding it with the new mafia.

    • Your comment illuminates the great fallacy behind anti-government, libertarian capitalist ideology.

      When you don’t have a strong-enough government, you don’t get unimpeded market transactions. You get gang rule.

      Markets – actual, non-metaphorical markets, the places where commerce took place – were always, right from the beginning, places with enough armed government employees walking around to allow the merchants to be secure.

  3. More aid for Somalia? Do Gooders have been spending money on Africa for at least 50 years with public and private funds, with meager results, and much aid has found its way into Swiss bank accounts. Until societies change their mores and ethics, nobody can help them. From Libya to Zimbabwe, nothing but chaos, mass rape, and plunder.

    • yeah, in December 2008, the Chief of Naval Operations was presented with a $ 200 M plan to fix rule of law in Puntland, and thereby end piracy.

      he had those magnificent supercarriers,
      and no enemy to send them up against, save the Iranians,
      so he NEEDED those barefoot, high-on-Qat, armed mostly with machetes teenagers as a justification to spend $ 5 Billion per year per carrier at sea.

      If al-Qaeda cannot be invoked as a threat to maritime security, well,
      there’s gotta be SOMEBODY who threatens commercial or naval or recreational navigation to send those Naval aviators out to defend against.

      I can personally vouch for the Somalis who were proposing that undertaking.
      I cannot vouch for a CNO who wastes $ Billions just to avoid any honest cost-benefit analysis.

  4. AFRICOM is doomed by the Chinese soft power approach.
    The U.S. is being taught a lesson by their Asian counterpart, China.
    Will we learn? Time will tell, but it’s doubtful.
    China is, historically, a consummate player; re: Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”…

    • Our guys study Sun Tzu, then pretty much do the opposite, behind a flood and smokescreen of Milbabble very-expensive pseudo-Dogmatic justification. Because MONEY, and position, and tradition…

    • Lesus Christ!

      Today’s China is about as closely related to what was called “China” 2,500 years ago
      the current secular-ish state of Israel is to the Israelites of the Bible.

      I talk to Chinese expats in Asia. They have no ambitions of conquest or domination, unlike the Vulcans of neoconservatism. They see trade as a way for everyone to benefit. That’s all.

      • I’ve spent most of the past decade working in Angola, DRC, Cameroon etc. and apart from your merry non-ambitious Chinese expats in Asia, I can assure you that the Chinese position in Africa is anything but benign. They have employed a ruthless commercial neo-colonialism filled with cynicism and disdain for the Africans, feeding the most venal of their kleptocrats while starving the local populations in the brutal acquisition of raw materials. Yes, really.

        • I am shocked, shocked I say, to hear that our fellow humans are capable of such predatory and short sighted perfidy! That continent is manifestly destined to be OURS to despoil!
          All this effort by a few to actually try to “make the world a better place,” so easily undone by the Kochs of every ethnicity and “race.” I guess the smart money is on grabbing all I can for myself NOW, knowing I’ll then be comfortably and ” successfully” dead before the rest of you run out of Soylent Green… all the rest of this is just chin music and window dressing.

        • Thank you for your observations – which the mainstraem media never reports.

          There were recent reports that even surprised Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the Chinese navy was in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Syria during the recent poison gas controversy and the potential for U.S. military strike.

          It appears that China is attempting to finally assert itself as a world power.

    • “The U.S. is being taught a lesson by their Asian counterpart, China.”

      The above comment is risible to anyone who knows how China operates in developing countries. I have seen first-hand how China’s “aid” programs operate in the Pacific. In Samoa and Micronesia, the Chinese build modern buildings for government complexes without regard for the local conditions. they bring in all of their workers and do not hire or train any of the local people. It is the “Chinese way or the highway.” After they leave, the structures are left without any followup maintenance or care. While the locals accept the structures, they resent the Chinese refusal to train or utilize local materials and labor, as well as the lack of followup.

      Chinese “soft power.” Laughable, and could only be invoked by someone who knows nothing about how the Chinese actually operate.

  5. What is this “elected president” you have mentioned multiple times ?

    The “parliament” was technically selected from nominees from tribal elders, but effectively appointed mostly by the US CIA. They were almost all expats from the diaspora.
    This is the body that elected the guy you are calling the elected President.


    On another note,
    the grievance against foreigners that I think was most resonant among Somali artisanal fishermen was that allegedly the Italian Mafia was dumping barrels of toxic waste in Somali coastal waters. IIRC, I think I saw video or stills of hundreds of barrels washed up on the shore of Raas Xaafuun, with labels in Italian.

    Who was doing the poaching in Somali waters ?
    I ask to be corrected.
    My impression, the #1 offender was Taiwan, followed closely by Spain.

  6. Modern day piracy has arisen in the peripheries of the world-economy. Unsurprisingly, their own “narratives” usually contain a lot of insight into the nature of that periphery of the world economy, the realities on the local ground.

    African countries turned to fishing for subsistence in a big way only after their agriculture was undermined by dumping subsidizing Western (mostly EU) produce on them.

    Meanwhile, EU policy sided with big fishing industry against traditional fishing even in the face of overfishing and did nothing to prevent those huge fleets from systematically picking clean African waters further and further away from Europe.

    These fleets are essentially beyond regulation as fish caught are typically transferred from vessel to vessel a number of times before getting off-loaded at port. To connect this to everyday life: this means that nobody can reconstruct from what region of the planet most of the sea-food that is sold to you actually comes from.

    The intrinsic lawlessness of the large scale fishing industry has had some rather blunt side effects such as snatching local fishermen on the high seas and pressing them into slave labor on the big vessels, as well as dumping radioactive waste along the African coast.

    It is harder to cite evidence for bigger picture context then for specific information; bits and pieces of it are often admitted to in passing in the media, which doesn’t seem to touch such topics until there is an actual firefight between some crack marine unit and ragtag “pirates”. I’d recommend Loretta Napoleoni’s Rogue Economics for an overview.

    We may be able to get a deeper understanding of local political developments as well as of the relative efficacy of assistence strategies if we make every attempt to understand what it means to be born into the peripheries of the world economic system.

  7. Besides poaching there was also ther problem of European countries illegally dumping toxic waste off the coast of Africa. Some of this probably affected fisheries as well as contributed to a general sense of lawlessness.

  8. If the world can put together an anti-piracy flotilla for the area, it should be able to put together an anti-poaching operation as well.

  9. I once spoke to a Swedish officer who were supposed to promote the Swedish part of the anti-piracy activity, and I asked him if the Swedish military also did something against the poaching that started the whole thing when they were down there. He just looked at me like he didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. Depressing!

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