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Report: Foreign Fishing Boats Could Reignite Somali Piracy

FILE - A masked Somali pirate stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel that washed up on shore after the pirates were paid a ransom and released the crew, Sept. 23, 2012.

FILE - A masked Somali pirate stands near a Taiwanese fishing vessel that washed up on shore after the pirates were paid a ransom and released the crew, Sept. 23, 2012.

High levels of illegal and unreported fishing in Somali waters could spark the return of piracy, a U.S.-based organization has warned.

In a new report, Secure Fisheries says foreign fishing boats caught more than 132,000 metric tons of fish off Somalia in each of the last two years (2013 and 2014), while local fishermen caught only 40,000 metric tons. In monetary terms, foreign vessels have outearned their Somali counterparts by nearly $250 million per year.

Sarah Glaser is the lead author of the report. She stops short of saying today's fishermen are tomorrow's pirates. But, she says, "One of the solutions to piracy is to improve economic security in Somalia, in particular reducing youth unemployment.

A stronger Somali fishing sector, she says, could reduce the risk of piracy by providing jobs and income that would in turn improve stability and security.

Illegal fishing was the original pretext for the start of piracy in Somalia waters. For years, pirates said they were "coast guards" protecting Somali waters. But Somali and international authorities dismiss that argument and describe the pirates as criminal gangs.

At one point, hundreds of sailors were held hostage in Somali waters along with their ships. Some are still being held.

Secure Fisheries says in view of the increase of illegal fishing “there is a real danger of the whole piracy cycle starting all over."

But the Somali Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources, Mohamed Omar Aymow, tells VOA that “there is not a big fear” of piracy returning to Somalia.

“We don’t have pirate men who are organized like the group we are fighting against now [al-Shabab], who are stationed in a particular area, who we can call pirates, that does not exist now," he says.

'Unsustainable' Fishing

But perhaps the main tragedy in all this is what Secure Fisheries calls the “unsustainable level of fishing” in Somali waters by foreign vessels.

Secure Fisheries says vessels from at least 21 countries are illegally fishing off Somalia. Glaser says Iran, Yemen, Span and Egypt are the major offenders. "These four countries make up about three-quarters of all the catch by foreign vessels,” says Glaser.

Secure Fisheries accuses foreign vessels of “harvesting commercially valuable tuna stocks at maximum capacity, leaving no room for Somalis to profit from their rich marine waters.”

Glaser said some of the fishing methods also trap large amounts of "bycatch" - aquatic life such as turtles, sharks and seabirds that the fishermen do not want but are killed just the same.

Glaser says 20,000 metric tons of shark is caught off Somalia each year - a 15% catch rate she says spells trouble for the shark population.

Fisheries Minister Aymow says the government is starting to gain capacity to deal with the issue. “Today we are able to detect when [foreign fishing vessels] get closer to the Somali waters, we can monitor it from Mogadishu, and we can tell the area they are closing in on," he says. But, he adds, "they do infiltrate because we do not have the infrastructure and facilities to control it.”

Secure Fisheries suggests Somalia could earn money off the vessels by licensing them to fish legally in Somali waters. It says doing so could earn the government $4 to $7 million each year.

Aymow says there is a mechanism in place to issue such permits, though he did not say how many have been given out so far.