As Somali pirates have captured the world's attention over the past week, I've been up to my neck in pirates of a different sort. Greenpeace got a tip that several Spanish owned vessels blacklisted for engaging in pirate fishing were en route to Singapore to offload illegally caught Chilean sea bass, or Patagonian toothfish. We alerted U.S. authorities at NOAA, the Coast Guard, and the State Department, each of which deals with pirate fishing. All three agencies were helpful and responsive, sharing the information we provided with other governments, updating databases, and even contacting the Singapore Navy Maritime Operations Center.
The investigation is still unfolding, but it looks like at least one or two of the vessels offloaded a considerable amount of illegal sea bass before local authorities were able to respond. In fact, it is not clear that local authorities planned to respond at all - Singapore is a party to CCAMLR, the Antarctic treaty under which the vessels were blacklisted.
While these pirate fishing vessels may seem to have little connection with the pirates plaguing ships passing through the Gulf of Aden, these issues are in fact tied together by more than a word most of us associate with eye patches and parrots. In all oceans of the world, vessels flying under flags of convenience - registered to countries with little or no concern for what the ships are used for - and owned by shady operators based in countries such as Spain, China, or Korea, pirates illegally catch enormous quantities of fish.
Somalia is a prime example of where pirate fishing thrives - a poor country with weak governance and no capacity to manage or patrol their own waters. And as is often the case, the most impacted people are local fishermen, who can no longer feed their families after foreign pirate fishermen have literally stolen all the fish. When deprived of their livelihoods, few breadwinners in any culture would be willing to quietly allow their families to starve. So it is not surprising that some have resorted to illegal activity. In addition to hijacking ships, unemployed fishermen in Ghana have been known to become wildlife poachers, adding new threats to already endangered populations of hippos, lions, and leopards.
It would be ridiculous to call the Somali pirates Robin Hoods when they hijack cargo ships carrying aid for starving people. At the same time, there's something disturbing about the international community failing to intervene when wealthy European owners of pirate fishing vessels destroy the livelihoods of coastal African communities and demand military intervention when impoverished communities resort to violence. Even now, European companies are illegally dumping nuclear waste off the coast of Somalia, and there have been reports of whole villages being affected when barrels have washed up on shore.
In early May, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization will meet and hopefully finalize a binding global agreement to address pirate fishing. The US has played a very positive role in negotiations so far, but Japan and Korea have balked at some of the measures that are necessary to get the job done. If there is a silver lining to the Somali pirate story, it may be that it helps wake policy makers up to the fact that pirate fishing creates far reaching impacts and must be dealt with immediately.
Yet another reminder that we live on Planet Ocean - and that the health of our marine ecosystems is intimately linked to the health of humankind.
--Written with Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner John Hocevar