Sympathy for the Pirate? Gulf of Aden Overfishing

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 6/05/2014 02:00:00 AM
Give a man no fish to catch...and he grabs an AK-47 & boards a skiff?
Fisheries management does not top the list of attention-grabbing international studies topics, but maybe we should pay more attention to it. (Unless you're an environmental studies or geography studies major perhaps.) Increased patrolling in the Gulf of Aden by various international forces coupled with better-prepared transit by commercial vessels--don't hog the shoreline, don't overload the boat so its deck sags and is easy to get ahold of, increase speed through the danger area, etc. have done their part in reducing maritime piracy. That said, the danger still hasn't entirely gone away:
The World Bank noted that "piracy imposed a hidden tax on world trade [...] Piracy costs the global economy roughly US$18 billion a year in increased trade costs — an amount that dwarfs the estimated $53 million average annual ransom paid since 2005," the bank said in a 2013 report. "It's expensive, so the day when the shipping companies say 'That's enough,' the whole thing can kick off again quite quickly," warned [Eurocrat] de Poncins.

And given that attacks are becoming rare, ship owners and captains are starting to let their guard down, EU Naval Force officials say, reporting that ships are again navigating at slower speeds and sailing closer to the coast in order to save fuel. "We are becoming victims of our own success," said Lieutenant Michael Quinn of Atalanta, adding, however, that "the conditions on the Somali coast have not changed and industry must not relax."

The EU Naval Force's mandate applies only to the sea; it is not authorised to launch land attacks on the pirates who still control, notably in Puntland, large sections of the Somali coast. Clan militia, pirate networks, and criminal gangs share power in this country deprived of an effective government since 1991.
As long as the factors which drove piracy remain--lawlessness, civil breakdown and a lack of "legitimate" livelihoods--the problem cannot be entirely solved since there will always be those willing to risk being caught in the absence of other alternatives. One of the more intriguing arguments has been that these pirates were formerly fishers driven to hijacking vessels by large commercial (read: Asian and Western) vessels overfishing the Gulf of Aden. There is some geographic evidence that this area has been overfished [1, 2] and the argument goes like this:
In looking at the fisheries maps, I noticed that the coast of Somalia was one of those places where overfishing had taken place; in a subsequent conversation with a colleague I learned that one hypothesis about the Somali pirates was that they were unemployed fishermen, who had to find another way of earning a living now that they had no place available to catch fish. At the time, this was a hypothesis and not backed up with a scientific survey; advocates never really mentioned the threat of piracy as a reason why we shouldn’t overfish our oceans to the point of depletion.

The theory held my attention though, and after a little research I found a map of global shipping lanes and looked for other places where a confluence of routes brought cargo ships close to countries with weak legal structures.  West Africa matched the criteria, a region whose overfishing had been highlighted both on the overfishing maps as well as in the documentary, “The End of the Line.”
More formally, this is the "lack of fisheries management" (due to absent governance) argument:
The relatively small area in which fishing takes place means that most important fisheries resources can be considered as shared stocks. Many are truly highly migratory, for example the tuna and small shoaling pelagic species of the Region. However, overfishing by industrial trawlers in the Gulf of Aden nearshore waters during the 1970s and 1980s has depleted some valuable resources, such as cuttlefish and deep sea lobsters. These stocks have not fully recovered, due primarily to a lack of effective fisheries management. 
However, the World Bank report cited earlier (warning: large download) disagrees with this notion:
Somalis often argue that piracy started off as self-defense by impoverished fishermen against international fleets fishing illegally in their waters. Over time, even as piracy evolved into a much broader business and despite the fact that fisheries were never a leading economic activity in Somalia, this “Robin Hook” (Shortland 2011) interpretation has by now become a powerful legitimizing narrative...

Moreover, the analysis finds no evidence of overfishing. While illegal fishing has often been associated with overfishing and the depletion of stocks available to Somali fishermen, the data do not reflect that. It was found that high total tuna production in a given year does not presage low production the next year either for an individual fleet or in the aggregate. In fact, at the aggregate level there is solid evidence that high tuna catches in one year predict high catches the next year. If stock depletion were a major problem, the productivity of the fleets remaining in piracy-affected waters should be higher after the piracy surge because so many fleets moved to safer water. However, no productivity boost can be seen in the data.
I do not think the World Bank report's argument is conclusive. It basically goes like this: since years when the Gulf of Aden area experienced elevated catches were not followed by lean years, then these waters were not "overfished" to begin with. The World Bank is more concerned with flow-level data (# of fishes caught annually) when overfishing is more a stock-level phenomenon (# of fishes left in a particular marine area). True, there is a problem of data availability regarding the true level of stocks in the Gulf of Aden area given that few international organizations currently operate there since "Somalia" is largely a collection of warlord-occupied lands.

This much the World Bank and I could probably agree on, though: If "legitimate" livelihoods were to be had in Somalia, then many of these folks wouldn't resort to this kind of low-probability opportunism. Just as cutting the "supply side" didn't work in the war on drugs, so too is the piracy problem not solvable by focusing mostly on force.