Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-SOMALIA: Local Fishermen Battle Foreign Trawlers

Judith Achieng'

BOSSASO, Mar 26 1999 (IPS) - Somalia’s coastal communities, who eke a living out of fishing, have appealed for help to keep foreign ships, which engage in illegal fishing, out of their country’s territorial waters.

“The international community has been spending substantial amounts of money on food aid and community projects in Somalia since 1991,” says Ibrahim Aware, a member of Somalia’s Marine Resource Management Project, which monitors the country’s marine environment.

“This is a critical time for international organisations to integrate Somali people with their environment and safeguard their natural resources from getting into the hands of a few rich,” he says.

Illegal fishing along the Somali coastline heightened after the disintegration of the Horn of African country into clan- based fiefdoms following the overthrow of President Siad Barre in 1991.

Taking advantage of a lack of a central government in Somalia, the foreign ships use prohibited fishing methods like drifts, dynamiting, breaking coral reefs and destroying the coral habitats where lobsters and other coral fish live.

As a result, even tiny female lobsters carrying eggs are killed indiscriminately during their reproductive cycle, something which was illegal before the civil war began in 1991.

During the day, Aware says, the ships disappear, but come close to the shore at night and apply their “destructive” fishing techniques, which reduce the local population’s harvest and damage nets and traps set by local fishermen.

In the mornings, lots of dead fish are seen floating near the shores, according to Aware.

The ships also have little regard for laws governing Somalia’s two fishing seasons.

Traditionally in Somalia, serious fishing especially involving nets only takes place between September and April. In the hot season, between May and August, fishermen only use hooks to catch fish. This is to allow time for the fish to breed.

Abdulahi Warsame, who works for the Ocean Training and Promotion (OTP), a local company, says more than 200 foreign vessels have since 1991, been engaged in illegal fishing in the Somali coastline, which stretches some 3,300 kilometres.

The culprits, mainly from Italy, Pakistan, India, Korea, Yemen, Spain and Japan, reap huge benefits from Somalia’s territorial waters, according to a list made available to IPS by the Marine Resource Management Project.

Within 75 days of fishing, according to Yassin Saleh, also of the Marine Resource Management Project, each ship gets up to 420 tonnes of fish out of Somali waters, a figure which translates to 6.3 million US Dollars.

The loss to Somali communities in terms of reduced catch, employment and environmental degradation, according to the Marine Resource Management project, runs into millions of dollars.

Samatar Yassin, who has been living on the sea earning an average of 1.2 million shillings (One US Dollar is equal to 8, 000 Somali shillings) for the past 10 years, fears he may lose his income unless action is taken against the foreign ships.

In the past one month alone, Yassin says he has lost four of his fishing nets, each costing about 100 US dollars as a result of damage caused by the trawlers.

“The sea is my only means of survival, I have no other choice. But the ships are too big, we are too small for them,” he laments.

Since the foreign ships began operating in the Somali territorial waters, Yassin says he hardly gets enough catch to sustain his family of three out of the two fishing seasons. “Sometimes I get no fish at all,” he says.

Noor Mohammed, 50, who has 30 years of fishing experience in Bissaso waters, says there is less catch now because the ships have destroyed most of the coral reefs which act as a breeding ground for the fish. “It has just become too difficult to get fish anymore,” he says.

Somalia’s marine resources, considered among the richest in the world, is the Horn of African country’s second largest industry after agriculture and fourth foreign exchange earner after livestock, banana and frankincense.

Between 1997 and 1998 the tiny Red Sea port of Bossaso alone exported fish and fish products, such as fish fillets, lobsters and shark fins, worth 7.5 million US Dollars.

To stop illegal fishing, local fishermen, armed with small firearms, have formed vigil groups to keep watch on their coast. When they capture a foreign fishing vessel, its occupants are forced to pay some cash as a fine for the illegal practice.

Just a week ago, two such vessels were captured at Eyl in the Gulf of Aden where the Red Sea opens into the Indian Ocean. One of the ships, which belongs to an Ukranian company, was seized on Mar 14, with 17 Ukrainians and one Somali, on board.

The second vessel, which was captured off the Gaba village in Eyl coast on Mar 15, belonged to a Taiwanese fishing company. It had 31 persons on board, most of who hail from India, Tanzania, Uganda, and Taiwan.

Although the vigilantes have 40 motorised boats donated by local non-governmental organisations (ngos), they are sometimes no match to the “pirates” who are heavily armed.

So far eight fishermen and two boats have been unaccounted for since two weeks ago. Warsame says he fears they may have been victims of the quarrel between foreign ships and local fisherman.

“Sometimes the foreign vessels are protected by influential local figures, and will allow no one to approach them,” he explains.

But the ocean is not the only Somali resource being depleted by greedy commercial interests due to the absence of a government in Somalia. In and around the town of Kismayu, hundreds of hectares of trees are being felled daily to make charcoal for export to the Middle East.

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