This weekend the big news was the U.S. Navy rescue of an American cargo ship captain from the clutches of Somali pirates on the Indian Ocean. Bravo.

The Somali pirate issue has been brewing for some time, but it never really made headlines until an American ship came under attack. Political instability – which we helped create – in Somalia forged a situation where piracy could flourish, but that’s not the the entire story. Some of the piracy has been a response to illegal fishing and waste dumping off the coast of Somalia:

As soon as the [Somalian] government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: “Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury – you name it.” Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to “dispose” of cheaply…

At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia’s seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish stocks by overexploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m-worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are being stolen every year by illegal trawlers. The local fishermen are now starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: “If nothing is done, there soon won’t be much fish left in our coastal waters.”

This is the context in which the “pirates” have emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a “tax” on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia – and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70 per cent “strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence”.

Of course that’s no excuse for taking hostages of any nationality, but as with most of our enemies, these pirates aren’t motivated by pure greed or evil.

Flickr photo by alex-pl


  1. Ted

    from the story on cnn.com: “And because of the tensions and the imminent danger, at one point… they exposed themselves where there was an opportunity, and because of imminent danger to the captain, the on-scene commander saw that one of the pirates still held that AK-47, was very, very concerned for the captain’s life and he ordered the shots to be taken. Three shots were fired and all were fatal. And it was a phenomenal shot, 75 feet away, the small boat was moving up and down a couple two to three feet and it was at night. Just remarkable marksmanship.”
    pretty badass.

  2. Ian

    Kind of hard to feel sympathetic for them when they go an take a whole bunch of other ships in retaliation.

  3. Chris

    I’m not sympathetic to the pirates, per se, especially not the ones who take hostages or steal relief aid. It’s just that I think the Somalians are in a sympathetic situation that is leading to the proliferation of the pirates.

  4. Ian

    No I’m not accusing you of that. I am just saying, it hurts their cause to take a bunch more ships from different nations.