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Somali Pirates Disrupt Fishing Industry, Increase Fish Stocks

Following warnings from shipping companies on the impact of Somali piracy on the global shipping industry, tuna fishermen in the Indian Ocean say pirate activities are also affecting their multi-billion-dollar industry. But pirates may also be inadvertently playing the role of marine conservationists by preventing commercial over-fishing.

The head of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, Alejandro Anganuzzi, says tuna fleets that operate in the region have been hauling in far fewer fish compared to what they used to catch before 2007.

He says the decline in catches have affected a $6 billion industry that provides roughly a quarter of the world's supply of tuna.

"We know that most likely, it is a combination of different factors," said Anganuzzi. "Maybe environmental reasons, maybe a little bit of over-fishing in previous years, and the piracy [issue]."

Two years ago, climate change is thought to have played a part in driving the fish deeper into colder waters and away from fishing nets. Over-fishing in some areas may have also contributed to the decline in catches.

In 2008, many of the same problems remained. But fishermen faced another threat. Bands of heavily-armed Somali pirates were searching for ships to hijack in the same area where large schools of fish gathered every year.

Pirates attacked tuna vessels at least three times last year as they fished 650 to 800 kilometers beyond Somali territorial waters. One vessel was captured, leading to a ransom payment that exceeded $1 million dollars.

Anganuzzi says he does not know the overall impact of piracy on the tuna industry. But he says the threat of pirate attacks have prompted many vessels to avoid some of the richest fishing spots in the Indian Ocean.

"If you look at a map and you look at all these areas that tuna vessels are reluctant to go in, it happens to be prime fishing grounds," he said.

Warships from more than a dozen countries are currently off the coast of Somalia, trying to disrupt pirate activities that have taken an enormous toll on the global shipping industry and economies.

Somalia's central government collapsed in 1991, leaving the country lawless and vulnerable to exploitation. Somali pirates have justified the hijackings-for-ransom as compensation for nearly two decades of illegal fishing in Somali waters by various European and Asian countries.

Tuna is in great demand throughout the world, especially premium tuna used for sashimi and tuna steaks. Asia's high-end tuna stocks have long been threatened by over-fishing and conservationists have voiced concern that tuna species found in the Indian Ocean will be threatened with extinction as markets shift to a more plentiful source.

A U.S.-based marine conservationist, Joni Lawrence, says by denying fishing vessels access to rich hunting grounds in the Indian Ocean, the pirates could be doing the world a favor.

"In a perverse way, the pirates are definitely doing a good thing because maybe it will raise awareness about the benefits of leaving a fish alone for a while so that people see that it is possible for them to replenish," said Lawrence. "Over-fishing will disrupt the balance of marine eco-systems and will have a critical effect on local and national economies around the world that depend on fishing for their survival."

"What we need is limits on catches and a means to monitor those limits," Lawrence continued. "Even those governments who are supporting over-fishing laws and imposing catch limits - the catch limits are great, but they cannot be enforced. So, ideally, in a perfect world, we could employ the pirates and pay them a salary to do this."

Economies of Indian Ocean island-nations like the Seychelles are hugely dependent on tuna.

In the Seychelles, tuna and related industries make up as much as 40 percent of foreign earnings. Dwindling catches have raised concern that the Seychelles and its neighbor to the south, Mauritius, could face severe economic problems.

Lawrence says while eradicating piracy may help boost tuna catches and allow those economies to recover, it is a short-term answer.