While “Pirates of the Caribbean” has become a multi-billion dollar Disney franchise, a new generation of sea bandits has risen off the coast of Somalia.
Large commercial fishing trawlers have taken advantage of the country’s chaotic political situation, dragging their nets and depleting the fish stock in Somali waters. Other passing ships have used the country’s coast as dumping grounds. In the mid-1990s local fisherman began banding together to drive these ships away, boarding foreign vessels to demand a “tax” from them. The pirates called themselves badaadinta badah or “saviors of the sea.”
Somalia is rife with guns and desperation, so the courageous fishermen were soon joined by others, looking for money rather than justice. For about a decade the pirate trade grew at a rapid pace and with wide local support. Pirate boom towns sprouted up all along the northern coast as pirates, armed with AK-47s and grenades, brought back larger and larger ships, demanding higher ransoms. One pirate boom town, Harardhere, developed a stock exchange with investors buying and selling shares in upcoming attacks.
The tide turned around 2006. Foreign ships had long since stopped fishing and polluting coastal waters but attacks became more frequent and violent. The semi-functional government of Puntland in northern Somalia began cracking down and the locals turned against the “saviors of the sea,” who now dock their ships away from hostile population centers. The pirates were pushed farther south into territory controlled by an Al-Qaeda affiliate. Foreign navies also began to defend coastal waters — so far in 2013 there have been only four pirate attacks, none of which were successful, down from around 200 attempted hijackings in 2011.
The warships and increased attention have not only driven away the pirates, but also the commercial trawlers and polluters. Local marine life is making a comeback and those same fishermen who banded together in the 1990s are once more making a living from the sea.
A version of this story appeared in Nowhere.