20 January 2012

When Somalia’s political system collapsed the country had no government.

The government collapsed after a 2006 US-backed Ethiopian invasion.

There was no one to issue fishing licences, to control national or international fishing. With no controls international fishing trawlers (from places as far away as Japan, Spain and South Korea) sailed through the political and regulatory vacuum and dominated Somalia’s rich fishing grounds. Using steel mesh nets they “clear felled” fish populations such as tuna and sardines, lobster, prawns and sharks, taking both the fish and the habitat they depended upon.

At the same time countries began dumping their toxic waste into the same waters: nuclear waste and other hard-to-get-rid-of wastes. According to a 2005 UN Report, it cost $2.50 a tonne to dump toxic waste in Somali fishing grounds compared to $250 a tonne to dispose of it cleanly in Europe. Respiratory and other new diseases broke out in the fishermen’s villages.

Somalia’s fishermen sometimes suffered complete loss of their resource and their income. But they still had their boats. First they used speed boats to catch up to the big trawlers to ask them to stop fishing and taking their catch illegally. But they had water cannons turned on them and they were shot at.

Fishers turned from fishing to piracy, using the boats to make their money from capturing the fishing and other vessels that entered their waters and to hold the crew and cargo to ransom. The names of today’s pirate fleets, such as the “National Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia” or “Somali Marines”, refer to the pirates’ beginnings.

Reluctant to complain about the piracy of their fishing boats, as that would have been an admission of illegality, the foreign fishing boats said nothing, and the governments in the countries they came from were silent, too, complicit in the international criminal activities of their fishers.

The silence encouraged the Somali fishermen to invest in more and bigger and faster boats better suited to piracy, and to buy more weapons.

As the fishing stocks never recovered but their new marine resource remained – the “harvest” of boats that sailed over their empty fish habitats below the surface of the sea – the fishers became permanent pirates.

It’s reported the fisher pirates have over US$300 million from piracy and that the costs to governments to run their navies there to protect commercial sea traffic (including those still robbing the Somalis of their fish and still dumping their pollution there) exceeds US$6 billion.

And still the overseas trawlers fish out the stocks and spread underwater deserts from their nets.

Today, in 2012 Somali fishers get their income from looting and ransoming the fishing boats, people and cargos that sail where they once fished. Piracy is the only growth industry in Somalia and now many non-fishers are pirates.

UN monitors in 2005 and again in 2006 suggested an embargo on fish taken from Somali waters, but their proposals were rejected by members of the UN’s Security Council.

Piracy continues.

What would happen here if we Australians lost our food security?

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach and author (of Sustainable House now in its second edition) who advises, teaches and speaks on sustainability issues. He works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy. See www.sustainablehouse.com.au