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From 2010 to 2012, pirates ruled Somali waters, costing commercial ships billions of dollars in ransoms. Over the last few years, increased naval patrolling and security improved the situation drastically and many former pirates turned to fishing to earn an honest living. However, NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jane Ferguson reports that domestic conditions could reverse this trend.
Every morning is busy at Bosaso's port, with fishermen returning from the sea and delivering their catch right onto the beach.
The waters off Puntland, a semi-autonomous region of Somalia, are rich with massive tuna.
YUSUF ALI YUSUF:
They migrate. They are coming mostly from Indian Ocean. They are coming here.
So they migrate through Somali waters?
They migrate through Somali waters.
So Somalia is very blessed with these fish.
It's not just fish that pass through these waters. Commercial ships do too. And just a few years ago this was the most dangerous place in the world for them. Pirates operated along the coast in Puntland, attacking 237 ships in 2011 alone, costing billions of dollars in ransoms, higher insurance premiums, and improving security and re-routing vessels. Since then international naval patrols and better security measures on-board ships made them harder to hijack.
International efforts to arrest pirates were stepped up by various coast guards, and pirate prisons were built in Somalia and abroad, and soon filled up. As business dwindled, many of the pirates here who used to hijack ships went back to their old jobs as fishermen. Down at the port, we met Zakaria Abouka and Abdikader Samatar, two former pirates. They're trying to earn an honest living this time around. Zakaria was a pirate for five years before spending a year in jail. He says he made over $100,000, but lost that money when he was arrested. Even if piracy weren't so risky these days, he complains, it takes a lot of capital to get it off the ground.
It's really very difficult to go back to piracy. You have to buy food, oil, gas, diesel, guns, bullets, everything. You have to take a loan for this. All of this money will go on your account and if you don't pay it's very risky. But in fishing it's very easy. You go out for a day and come back. You will earn money and then you can buy your things.
But making a decent living from fishing is tough.
Whenever we go out fishing for around 4-5 days, when we come back the money that we make is very little.
22 year old Abdi Kader was just a teenager when piracy was at its height. Unlike Zakaria, he never got caught by the coast guard, and there's a part of him that misses the thrill of it.
In piracy you are a risk taker. Immediately when you see a boat or ship you risk yourself. You don't care about anything. Your only aim is to catch it, and you do whatever is possible to catch the boat. There are some ships that will vanish and we cannot catch them, but mostly we catch them because we use ladders, hand grenades, bazookas, so that when we fire they stop immediately.
He's hardly a fisherman by choice.
Given the chance would you rather be a pirate or a fisherman?
There is no chance to do piracy now – it's closed. But it is better than fishing.
Somalia's ongoing civil war began in 1991 when the government collapsed. Decades of chaos since then created an environment of lawlessness in a country full of guns and desperately poor people. A NATO effort to tackle piracy, Operation Ocean Shield, began in 2009, with war ships patrolling the waters. They declared mission accomplished a year ago and stopped. Ben Lawellin works with the Colorado-based think tank Oceans Beyond Piracy.
A lot of on-the-scene mitigation efforts which were: international naval coalitions, deployment of armed guards, and something called adherence to best management practices or industry recommended best management practices, which are things like reporting in vessels location going into what's called the high risk area, simpler things like driving ships faster, kind of hardening the vessel. All that really brought down the incidents of Somali piracy, but it really just kind of mitigated the problem at sea.
Despite all of those security measures, the conditions that created pirates in the first place still exist. People here need jobs. Somalis don't traditionally eat much fish. As an animal herding culture, many prefer to eat livestock like goats, cattle, or sheep. So fishing as an industry here is rudimentary and often unprofitable. Efforts are underway to change that, and take advantage of the country's vast more than 1800 mile long coastline rich with fish. Access to domestic and international markets could change lives, but to sell fish internationally they will have to raise their standards.
There might be plenty of fish here but there is also plenty of filth, and if people want to make money out of these fish and export them, they are going to have to make this whole area much more clean and much more professional.
The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization is trying to do that. They are building a new fish processing plant next door. It's not being used yet but hopes to provide hygienic places to chop up fish and chill-rooms to store it. Other changes will be needed in how the fish are caught and brought in from the water too.
John Purvis is the project's manager.
What is needed here is a transformation of the sector, and that's going to involve change at the point where the fish is caught, it's going to involve change where the fish is moved from the fishing ground to the land, particularly the landing site, and then the whole marketing, processing, export area. There needs to be change at every point in that value chain if you like.
Animal herders from inland are suffering from a devastating drought. As their camels and goats die, they are fleeing destitute to refugee camps like this one just outside the coastal town of Bosaso. The UN is teaching the women from the camps to process and dry fish so they can feed their families as well as sell it to make money. Boys from the camp are also being taught to fish. These young men grew up around livestock and know little about boats, so the experienced fishermen down at the port are passing on their knowledge.
Eager to show us around their training vessel, they gave us a tour. The hope is that one day they will make good wages from an export industry here.
Are we likely to see Somali fish exported to Europe, to the States?
Yea, why not? You look at the target here, it's for the migrating tuna that is caught by vessels in Kenya, Tanzania, Seychelles, Mauritius, and that fish is handled well and it goes globally. You can find it in any market across the globe. And there's no reason that that same stock tuna fish coming into Somali waters shouldn't enter the same market.
That will take many years however. Years during which these communities will keep struggling to develop, leaving the lure of piracy to remain. Last spring, pirates in Puntland snatched their first commercial vessel in years. It was a reminder that piracy might return if conditions on land don't improve, and security at sea continues to relax. And it's not just small-time piracy the world has to fear. There are more powerful figures waiting in the shadows, says John Purvis.
The part that is not here active at the moment is the organized syndicate part of it. That probably has businesses elsewhere on the continent and in the world. But if they decide to see an opportunity to come back again and reorganize their networks that's still there. The kingpins, the so-called kingpins are still active.
And that's a warning for sailors worldwide, that the waters off Somalia could once again become a pirates' paradise.
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