Piracy or a resource swap?

"It's almost like a resource swap. Somalis collect up to $100 million a year from pirate ransoms off their coasts. And the Europeans and Asians poach around $300 million a year in fish from Somalia waters."  Peter Lehr, St. Andrew's University.

Prior to the 1990s, the Somali fishing industry was expanding. In both a deliberate strategy to help alleviate the country's food shortage after the drought of the 1970s, and also in a money-­making endeavour, the Somali government began to invest in fishing. Foreign aid was received, shipyards and cool­stores were built and the government gave fishing licenses to some foreign fishing vessels. Two joint­ venture fishing enterprises were also established; one with Italy and the other with Iraq. (In the 1970s there had been a joint USSR ­Somali venture but this ended when Somalia broke diplomatic relationships with the Soviet Union in 1977.)

Then in 1991 the civil war began and, what was later described by the UN as a free­-for-­all, took place in Somali waters. Looking back from 2003, the UN Security Council noted,
"For over a decade, hundreds of vessels from various Member States have continuously fished Somali waters in an unreported and unregulated manner, as documented in many reports on the subject.” November 4, 2003 (S/2003/1035)
Foreign fishing vessels began to turn the “Somali seabed into a wasteland” and most of the world ignored what was happening.1 There was not much international coverage about the damage being done to the Somali fishing industry, to the local communities, and the danger to the eco-system and sea-life.

With little help or interest, one response by some Somali communities were the creation of local coast-guards to police their waters. At this time, in the early 1990s, it was common to talk of the vigilante Somali coast-guards fighting against the international pirate fleet – the IUUs looting Somali resources. And when an illegal ship was caught in Somali waters, it was fined. The ship was held by the 'coast-guard' until the penalty was paid.

A former Somali 'coast-guard' leader said their motive was:
“...to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters ... We don’t consider ourselves sea-bandits. We consider sea-bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas.” Somali Pirates Tell Their Side, NY Times, October 1, 2008
However, the sheer volume of IUUs were too great. By 2005 there were, according to the High Seas Task Force (HSTF) over 800 illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing vessels in Somali waters at any one time. (The HSTF was established in 2003 by various countries and international NGOs; it was disbanded in 2006.) The IUUs, according to the taskforce, were taking more than US $450 million in fish value out of Somalia annually and the 'IUUs from the EU were alone taking more than five times the value of its aid to Somalia every year.' (High Seas Task Force. (2006). Closing the Net)

Over the seven years since the High Seas Task Force report, the situation has not improved for Somalia. However, it isn't just foreign fishing vessels and IUUs plundering the waters off Somalia; toxic waste from countries such as Australia, Italy, Germany and France is also dumped in the Horn of Africa. The result has been described by the UN Special Envoy for Somalia  as “...a disaster off the Somali coast, a disaster [for] the Somali environment, [and] the Somali population.”

There is more than one form of piracy taking place in the waters off Somalia, but as pointed out by journalist Mohamed Abshir Waldo in a 2009 article, the world focuses only on one.

A 'resource swap' is an apt (but one sided) description of what is happening in Somalia.

1Peter Lehr and Hendrick Lehmann, Somalia—Pirates’ New Paradise in PETER LEHR, VIOLENCE AT SEA: PIRACY IN THE AGE OF GLOBAL TERRORISM, 13 (2007). The foreign fishing vessels were from France, Spain, Kenya and Japan, among others, and extracted about $300 million per year.