August 25th, 2011
11:58 AM GMT
(CNN) There is nothing swashbuckling about Somali piracy. The pirates are not romantic anti-heroes with a parrot on their shoulder. Instead, they are recognized as lawless, dangerous criminals who roam East Africa’s waters terrorizing the shipping industry.
The direct impact of the criminality off the Somalia coastline is being felt on the mainland, where critical food aid is not getting through to famine-struck Somalis because 80 to 90% of humanitarian relief arrives by sea, according to a recent report by the African Development Bank (AfDB).
Few ships and aid organizations are willing to take the risks involved in delivering tons of food aid, says the AfDB report. Owners and aid workers fear the ships will be seized and crews kidnapped for ransom. For now, despite the dangers, some humanitarian agencies still operate, often with protection from NATO warships.
The critical needs of feeding Somalis today, as well as the long-term implications of creating a sustainable agriculture sector, are often discussed by political scientists and economists. What to do about the state of anarchy in the failed state that is Somalia?
It is a question that has been debated for many years now, and I fear is not about to be imminently solved, even as African Union troops continue to do a brave job in defending Mogadishu against Al-Shabaab militias.
The issue of piracy, though, is not a purely hopeless problem, because its roots lie in the collapse of the fishing industry in Somalia.
A confluence of events in 1991 created a vacuum that laid the ground for the birth of Somali piracy. As the Siad Barre regime collapsed and plunged the country into civil war it left the Somali coastline unprotected. Around the same time the EU tightened fishing controls in Europe, pushing some fishing ships to look for new waters.
So fleets from Europe and Asia - many operating illegally - moved into the open East African waters to fish. And fish they did, plundering, according to many reports, the oceans of fish stocks. The ripple effect was enormous, decimating the livelihoods of many Somali fishermen.
Many of these formerly destitute Somali fisherman “took matters into their own hands,” according to the AfDB, and turned to hijacking ships to make up for lost income.
The new “industry” was quickly co-opted by the Somali warlords and is now an organized, hierarchical gang-like operation.
However, the AfDB and other observers still point to the many ships that continue to fish illegally in East African waters.
There is concern that this root cause of the Somali piracy issue has been badly managed by the international community. For example, NATO warships that police the passageway of the Gulf of Aden are not tasked with shutting down these offshore fisheries that continue to operate without jurisdiction, say observers. Allowing fish stocks to replenish, some say, might just mitigate the need for Somalis to earn a living out of piracy.
Others say this is just naïve, that the Somali coastline is a dangerous but strategic piece of maritime real estate, which will continue to destabilize the region no matter the state of fishing stocks.
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