Rusting hulks of capsized boats decorate the waters around Berbera, a port city in the self-declared republic of Somaliland. Further down Somalia’s coast, pirates raid freighters in the Gulf of Aden. Yet efforts are underway to help Somalis make better use of their 3,300km coastline - the longest on the African continent - by increasing fishing and seafood exports to lucrative markets in the Middle East and Europe.
In 2013, the European Union will spend US$6.5 million to help Somaliland pursue its long-term goal of netting 120,000 tons of seafood each year, the sale of which could generate $1.2 billion in foreign currency.
“In Somalia, people have lived for a long time with their backs to the sea,” says Isabel Faria de Almedia, the EU development chief for Somalia. “It’s a country of agro-pastoralists with a strong nomadic tradition. We think there is a huge potential for the consumption and export of fish.”
Until the second half of the 20th century, few Somalis outside fishing communities consumed fish and the sector was entirely artisanal in nature. This began to change in the 1970s with the development of better cold-storage facilities and the creation, with Soviet help, of an industrial fleet. But for want of spare parts and maintenance, these vessels quickly fell into disuse. (See here for a detailed, if slightly dated, overview of the Somali fishing industry.)
Luring pirates away from piracy
In the middle of the last decade, Somali fishermen complained they were being forced into piracy by foreign trawlers operating illegally in waters claimed by Somalia.
Coastal Somalis recount as a “eureka” moment the time self-appointed coastguards impounded a foreign trawler and levied a fine on its owners; they quickly realized seizing vessels was more lucrative than competing with commercial vessels for dwindling fish stocks.
Amina Farah Arshe, who employs 40 fishermen aboard 11 vessels from Berbera, the main port of Somaliland, says fishing revenues could provide an alternative to raiding freighters far into the Indian Ocean.
“We can stop it by empowering the people. We can stop it by giving jobs to the youth. People would make money, the government would collect tax revenues, and piracy would diminish,” she said. “But we need support. We need training, boats, fishing gear and cold storage.”
For years, the United Nations has said that tackling Somali piracy should involve creating work for the jobless young Somalis who board skiffs, armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, to hunt vessels on the high seas.
But only now has the security situation made this a realistic possibility. Somalia has recently selected its most viable president and government in years. Somali and African Union forces have driven Al-Shabab insurgents from major cities.
Out at sea, foreign warships and on-deck private security guards deter piracy. Only 70 raids took place in the first nine months of 2012, compared to 199 in the same period last year, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
Somalia's new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, says he wants to “increase local food production to end poverty forever”. Some 2.1 million people in the country are faced with hunger, particularly in the turbulent south.
The future of large-scale fishing in Somali waters is tied up in a legal dispute over how far these waters extend from the country’s coastline. While the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Somalia ratified in 1989, establishes 12 nautical miles from shore as an international norm for states’ territorial waters, Somalia has asserted sovereignty over seas up to 200 nautical miles from the coast. Mogadishu has resisted international pressure to declare these outer waters an exclusive economic zone, a designation that confers numerous rights to the country but falls short of full sovereignty. (See here for more details.)
Alan Cole, who runs anti-piracy operations for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, says Somaliland’s Berbera and Puntland’s Bosaso have real potential. But exporting fresh fish from the remote central coast - site of many pirate bases - offers a “logistical challenge”, he said.
The UN agency spends $40 million each year tackling piracy, helping prosecute sea-borne raiders, training and equipping coastguards, creating jobs, and providing refrigerated trucks and storerooms to the fishing industry.
“We need to get the fishing fleets of Somalia back to sea,” Cole said. “One of the challenges for fisherman is that the pirates will steal your fish. So you come back to the same issue of needing wider maritime security for Somalia so that the fishermen can safely make their living at sea.”