How Overfishing Almost Got Capt. Phillips Killed by Pirates


Photo via War is Boring

By now, you've surely heard the engrossing story of Captain Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by pirates off the coast of Somalia, and freed by a swift Navy sharpshooting operation that left three dead. But what you probably haven't heard is that the true root of this crisis isn't bloodthirsty pirates—it's overfishing. The Decline of Somali Fishermen
Thousands of Somalis once made their living as fishermen. But Somalia has been without a central government for nearly two decades—so there's no active body that's able to effectively protect the country's rights to its coastline, and the once-abundant supply of fish it held. So now, due to the willingness of foreigners to exploit fisheries off Somalia's coast, and the lack of a governing body to stave them off, many of these fishermen are finding their nets empty.

It's estimated that $300 million worth of seafood is stolen from Somali waters altogether every year—a massive amount in any country, but even more so in one with such a depressed economy as Somalia's. Some local fisherman believe there will be no fishing industry to speak of if the practice goes on unchecked—so over-plundered are the fish populations in Somali waters.

A Path to Piracy
And without the ability to bring home even a sufficient amount of fish to eat, many of these fisherman justifiably grow desperate. But even from here, it's not a simple jump to pirating. Initially, many of the now-termed "pirates" were vigilante patrol squads, steering their boats to fishing vessels they found illegally snagging seafood or dumping toxic waste in Somali waters and demanding they pay a tax. After this proved ineffective, something closer to organized piracy developed.

All of this is detailed in a fascinating interview a Somali "pirate" gave with to the New York Times after helping to capture a Ukrainian vessel carrying a massive weapons load to the Sudan. And both cases have much in common: it's hard not to get the impression that the "pirates" are desperate, reactionary, and to some degree, inept—why else would four barely armed men take on a US cargo vessel, and attempt to outmaneuver the Navy with a single hostage?

Desperation. Much of which stemmed from wildly unsustainable fishing practices. And that's how overfishing left three men dead and almost got the heroic Capt. Phillips killed.

Final note: hostage taking is a deplorable, desperate act. But such desperate acts are often done out of necessity, or at least perceived necessity--while such violent acts should never be condoned, they need to be understood.

More on Overfishing and Piracy:
Pacific Tuna Overfishing to be Addressed in Panama City
Overfishing Update: Endangered Atlantic Bluefin on the Menu

Tags: Economics | Fish | Fishing | Poverty

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