Human Journey

Fresh Piracy Off West Africa Highlights Link to Overfishing

French ship under attack by Barbary pirates (circa 1615)


A few years ago a scientific survey was released that mapped out where fisheries were being depleted around the world.  This was about the same time that pirates from Somalia achieved a large degree of prominence by seizing a cargo ship full of tanks, with news reports bemoaning how global shipping lanes brought cargo ships close by a country with unemployed men and no rule of law to keep them in check.

In looking at the fisheries maps, I noticed that the coast of Somalia was one of those places where overfishing had taken place; in a subsequent conversation with a colleague I learned that one hypothesis about the Somali pirates was that they were unemployed fishermen, who had to find another way of earning a living now that they had no place available to catch fish. At the time, this was a hypothesis and not backed up with a scientific survey; advocates never really mentioned the threat of piracy as a reason why we shouldn’t overfish our oceans to the point of depletion.

The theory held my attention though, and after a little research I found a map of global shipping lanes and looked for other places where a confluence of routes brought cargo ships close to countries with weak legal structures.  West Africa matched the criteria, a region whose overfishing had been highlighted both on the overfishing maps as well as in the documentary, “The End of the Line.”

I came back to my colleague and asked if, following this line of reasoning, it was possible that the next piracy hotspot would be West Africa. My colleague didn’t think so, but the line of thinking came back to me this past weekend on reading a small blurb on an act of piracy off the West African Coast. It turns out that the region has indeed become the next piracy hotspot, just as increased military patrols by non-African nations seems to have solved the piracy problem off the Somali coast.

Monday was Labor Day, a U.S. holiday that was originally introduced to celebrate the importance of a decent job.  And every now and then, the labor movement—which grew up trying to provide everybody with decent jobs—is pitted against the environmental movement. All too often, green regulations are decried as job-killers by employers both large and small.

But what if the modern pace of fishing hadn’t removed most of the fish off the coasts of Somalia and West Africa? What if the local fishermen could still fish there on a sustainable scale? What if fishing regulations had been implemented and adhered to? Would the local fishermen still have jobs? Would piracy have taken as large an economic toll as it has in these regions?

Labor Day for the most part now is a nice three-day weekend that commemorates the end of summer. Barbecues are the venue of choice for celebrating the weekend.  But perhaps a moment or two could be spent chewing on the notion that environmental rules don’t always have a negative economic impact. Perhaps jobs can be preserved by embracing sustainability.  Who knows? Saving the planet might actually be an economic stimulus.

Dan Klotz is a veteran writer and advocate on conservation efforts and the health and sustainability of our food systems. Dan's career has spanned a wide range of policy issues, including protecting sharks around the world, securing the land rights of indigenous communities, addressing the sustainability and research needs of agriculture both domestically and internationally, advocating for smoke-free workplaces, cleaning up toxic waste sites, and preserving wild areas on land and in the ocean.
  • abubakar ismail

    I don’t understand how Somali fisherman would over-fish while they don’t have equipment like big ship.Europe and American ships come to Somali coast to steal their fish, while Somali fisherman will tend to piracy to act as coast guard in their water bodies. SO NAT GEO, that is true story of PIRATES IN SOMALIA…

  • Online Gym

    Abubakar is right we have such Powerful methods of fishing now. How did they do it back in the day? Maybe it was the manner of doing it. maybe they were just awful at fishing and could catch anything.

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