Berbera is a town filled with fish, and therefore, over-run with cats. Over dinner with Yusuf Abdilahi Gulled, the country director of FairFishing in Somaliland, stray felines purr around our table out on the patio. Eventually a bold one leaps into our plates to pick at the bones and spill the shigni, signifying the end of our meal.
“Tss! Tss!” Gulled swats at the beast with a small stick he came with to the restaurant. The animal lets out a corresponding hiss and retreats back into the shadows to lick its wounds.
“Have you ever seen one of these before?” Gulled asks as he waves the stick. It’s about two feet tall, carved with a hook on one end and two prongs on the other side.
“Yes,” I reply. “I see men walking around town with them, but they are too short to be walking canes. What are they?”
Gulled explains that in urban areas the stick, called a hangool, is more of a fashion statement. Elders carry them to gesticulate mostly, but they are a nod to the Somali’s nomadic traditions. However, the hangools are still being used to herd camels Gulled tells me. They are too small to subdue the massive animals on their own. Instead, the forked sticks are used to pull thorny branches called ood together in the desert to create make-shift corrals. Without the aid of this simple tool, pastoralists would seriously cut their hands on the thorns.
The sticks, along with entrepreneurs, form the backbone of Somaliland’s economy: the livestock industry. Culturally and economically, the camel is central to Somali livelihood. Gulled’s work signals a shift from this mindset. FairFishing’s mission is to contribute to the development of the fishery sector in Somaliland. That may sound conventional, given the Horn of Africa’s long, continuous stretch of coastline along the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, but it is a revolutionary idea. As recent as a couple of years ago, most Somali’s considered eating fish to be taboo.
“Before we were saying that the man who eats fish, or works with the fish; we were calling him jaa’ji,” said Abdiwahid M. Hersi, former director of Ministry of Fisheries, Puntland. “We were not even going to marry his daughter.”
Since 2013, that has started to change. UN FAO has launched “Eat fish” campaigns to combat hunger and promote the nutritional benefits of seafood to the Somali people. A fledgling industry has begun to pop up in the coastal towns and the major cities, but the fishing sector is still challenged by the ungovernable waters that it casts its nets in.
“Starting in the early 1990s, frustration with illegal, under-reported, and unregulated (IUU) fishers became a justification for attacks on foreign vessels, setting the stage for piracy against the entire shipping industry in the Western Indian Ocean,” says Dr. Sarah Glaser, lead author of the report, Securing Somali Fisheries.
Piracy off the coast of Somalia not only affected global maritime trade, but further kept Somali fishers from making a livelihood. While pirates are still ransoming off hostages in Somalia, successful attacks in the Indian Ocean have declined dramatically. This is due to sustained coordination by the Somali government, the international community, private industry, and Somalis themselves.
Abdiweli Farah is owner of Hodan Fishing. The company is based in Eyl, a town depicted in the film Captain Phillips and once known as Somalia’s “pirate capital,” until community groups ousted the pirates. When I ask Farah about it when we visit his retail shop in Garowe, he is nonchalant.
“It was difficult for me to fish before,” he says. “Now piracy has declined to almost zero and now I can go fishing.
In Farah’s mind, the real pirates are the illegal fishers that continue to undermine the Somali domestic fishing industry, currently valued at $135 million.
“When the boats that no one can control like the ones from Yemen come in, you lose like $15,000,” he says. “You put specific nets and hooks on the ground and they come and take them. There is nothing that you can do except cough up a lot of money.”
Foreign vessels are responsible for 70% of the fish caught in Somalia’s waters.
Omar Osman of Zakia Fishing in Maid, Somaliland explains the disadvantage.
“They use GPS systems to find where those fish are located. They have special equipment like traps, nets, hooks and lines,” Osman explains. “Each fish type has special equipment. They have these tools and they have the knowledge. They come from a place where the government supports the fishing sector so they have the skills.”
Somalia is starting to fight back. Last year, in an attempt to combat IUU fishing, the Somali Federal Government laid claim to Somalia’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“But, despite all our progress in strengthening fisheries’ management domestically, we lack the ability to police our vast waters,” writes the President of Somalia, Hussein Sheikh Mohamud in Project Syndicate. “I call upon the international community to collaborate with my government to ensure that IUU fishing in Somali waters is stopped for good.”
The President is correct that his country needs global assistance to overcome IUU fishing. However, addressing the problem must start at home.
“If Somalis wish to sustainably develop their fisheries beyond current levels, foreign fishing (both legal and illegal) must be limited, licensed, recorded, and regulated as soon as possible,” says Dr. Glaser. “Careful licensing could result in millions of dollars in revenue each year that could be invested and distributed to benefit Somali people, especially fishers.”
This practice must be done quickly however. Last month, pirates captured two Iranian fishing vessels off the coast of Somalia, marking the first successful hijacking in these waters in the last three years.
“The level of illegal fishing is prompting these sort of attacks — and the potential for bringing piracy back,” says John Steed, an anti-piracy expert from the group Oceans Beyond Piracy.
The Somali fishing industry is key to the region’s future security and prosperity. To protect this emerging sector, Somalis need a maritime hangool like the one that has helped pastoralists thrive for so long ashore in their desert environment. Before the international community, who bear the brunt of responsibility of IUU fishing, can intervene, Somalis must start the regulation process themselves by licensing their fishing vessels. If this is not done immediately, the incentives that drive piracy will soon return.