There is a real life pirate story taking place in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, let us call it Pirates of the Somali Coast. Of course it isn’t the only pirate problem on the globe at the moment. The waters of South East Asia are noted for the problem as well. And, depending on how one wants to define pirate, there are probably a fair number of so called legitimate enterprises out there that deserve the label.

Pirates, if they are historical or fictional and the subject of Hollywood epics, are often heroes, but contemporary ones, particularly like those off the Somali coast are generally considered villains. Don’t expect Walt Disney to build a theme park attraction around them, or Jerry Bruckheimer to produce a series of movies glorifying a jolly band of AK-47 and RPG toting sailors snatching oil tankers and other merchant vessels, and holding them for ransom.

Like so many things in the world that we learn about, what we read and hear often is only one part of the story, the part that suits those who relay it to us. In most cases there is always a story or two behind the story, just waiting to be dug up.

The knee jerk reaction to the pirates of Somalia is to see them as criminals that need to be dealt with. That is what the common story that we are given would imply. But, the question must arise, why are they pirates in the first place. Perhaps the solution to this piracy is to go behind that story to the root of the problem and change the situation that compels people to be pirates, rather than perpetually playing Whac-a-Mole with them off of the Horn of Africa.

The first problem leading to the creation of the piracy problem along the Somali coast is the fact that Somalia is a failed state with little functional national authority to maintain its
security, both internal and external. The second problem is the foreigners who took advantage of this weakness to prey upon Somalia.

The waters off of Somalia are rich in tuna and other fish, a traditional source of support for tens of thousands of people in the relatively primitive fishing communities along its coast. With the disintegration of state power in the country modern foreign fishing fleets were able to swoop in without restraint and using industrial methods mine the sea of its bounty. In addition, foreign interests began using Somali waters for a dumping ground for toxic waste.

Understandably Somali fishermen who, depending upon these fish stocks and clean and productive water, could not compete with the hundreds of more modern foreign vessels that were scooping up the resources. Understandably they were both upset with this, and in need of some new enterprise to feed themselves and their families. Attacking the foreign vessels and holding them for ransom became a replacement for the fishing that they lost.

One may ask what does seizing an oil tanker have to do with redressing grievances about fishing issues. The answer is that once the Somalis became adept at their new profession, grabbing bigger ships for more reward was just normal business expansion that any good capitalist would understand. Still, however, the value earned by the pirates in this enterprise, by some estimates, is only about one third of that of the fishery that is being stolen from them by the foreign fleets.

Looking at it from a Somali point of view, who really are the pirates here, people finding a way to survive in response to their traditional means of support being looted and pillaged? Or is it the unscrupulous foreign fishing fleets that are strip mining the sea around Somalia?