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Pirates Threaten Lives and Livelihoods of Yemeni Fishermen

  • Heather Murdock

Since an international armada arrived in the Gulf of Aden last year to fight piracy, the combined navies have had some success in protecting commercial ships. But piracy remains a huge problem and traditional Yemeni fishermen, who catch most of the country's fish exports, say pirates have cut their business in half and threatened their lives. On a day to day basis, some say the international forces are also a threat.

Every morning on the humid shores of Yemen's south coast, traditional fishermen load their colorful thin boats with nets, cages and string. It takes only a couple of men to push the small boats off the beach and into the Gulf of Aden. Sometimes they stay out fishing all night.

These days many fishermen say their income has been cut in half. Three years ago, there were about 10 pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden, now there are more than 100 a year. Fishermen say it is no longer safe for them to venture into distant waters, or fish off the nearby coast of Somalia.

In November, three Yemeni fishermen were kidnapped by a gang of Somali pirates with AK-47s. Fishermen say pirates locked them up, beat them, and then tossed them into the gulf, far from their home shores. Three days later, naked and bleeding, they were found alive, and returned to their families. Fowzi Gaber, a Yemeni fisherman, says the memory of this attack has other fishermen scared to travel more then 20 miles off shore. "They came while they were sleeping. They've taken two barrels and they've taken a piece of wood. They roped it, and they dropped them. They've taken all equipment," he said.

About a year ago, almost every major power in the world sent naval forces into the Gulf of Aden to thwart this new breed of Somali pirates. They are high tech - equipped with rocket propelled grenades and global positioning devices - and found easy pickings in the gulf, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

This did not decrease the number of attacks in the gulf, but it must have scared off some pirates, because the rate of increase slowed dramatically in 2009. In some neighboring waterways, however, the number of attacks by Somali pirates quadrupled. And piracy attacks worldwide have increased by almost 30 percent, mostly from Somalia.

Somali pirates are now holding seven ships and 158 crew members hostage.

But for Yemeni fishermen, it is not just pirates that have made the gulf a dangerous place to make a living. The international forces often mistake fishermen for pirates. They say they have been searched, kidnapped, detained, and killed. Some say the forces meant to stop the pirates are as scary as the pirates.

Fowzi estimates that as many as 4 million of Yemen's 25 million people are fishermen. But the Head of the Fishing Association, Hashem Rabee, says, the impact of traditional fishing on Yemen's economy is impossible to gage.

Rabee says for every fisherman, there are about six people counting on that income. For generations of Yemeni families, a small boat and a fishing net is the only way they know how to survive.

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