Friday, March 19, 2010

Seaborne Anti-Piracy Measures In Pictures

A colleague of mine in the shipping industry recently sent me some images of security measures installed on a new product tanker as a means of deterring boardings in piracy-prone waters. The shots give you some idea of how barbed wire is used.

Al-Shabaab Recruiting Young Somali-Canadians?

As some may remember, there was a brief flurry of media attention last year regarding the whereabouts of a number of Somali-Americans from the Minneapolis area, with the suspicion raised that several had joined up with militia groups in their homeland, including al-Shabaab. At that time, Sen. Joseph Lieberman labeled the issue the, "[M]ost serious instance of homegrown terrorism in the United States...There obviously are people here in the United States recruiting young Somali-Americans to go over to Somalia to be trained to fight."

Well, it now appears that the problem has spread to the Somali community in Canada. This week news broke that at least one young man who had been living in Toronto had returned to Somalia and reportedly been killed while fighting with al-Shabaab in that country. The man, identified by CBC News as Mohammed Elmi Ibrahim, was in his early-20s and had been an English major at the University of Toronto before disappearing some 18 months ago. A video purported to originate from al-Shabaab is the source of the news about his apparent death in combat.

(Last week, the Canadian government added al-Shabaab to its list of outlawed terrorist groups, as a result of the linkage between Shabaab and al-Qaeda.)

It is also being reported that at least five other young men have disappeared since last September, and that all belonged to the same Toronto-area mosque that Ibrahim attended. It is believed that these others may have also joined up with al-Shabaab's forces.

The attraction of young men from North America to head to their ancestral homelands and fight for a cause is nothing new. In just the last two decades, members of many ethnic groups living in Canada have taken up arms to fight abroad (think, for instance, of the Balkan wars). In this case, though, it has rattled many Somali-Canadians - and a number of other observers - who fear that that extremists are actively recruiting from within the community and those individuals could return here and pose security risks. It should be noted, however, that support for al-Shabaab among Somali-Canadians appears to be marginal, at best.

But some young men do appear to be heading to the Horn of Africa to fight. There's an excellent article by The National Post's Stewart Bell that was posted yesterday, in which the journalist provides an in-depth perspective of just what the attractions are for young Somali-Canadians. It centers on the experiences on one man who left Toronto to take up arms with al-Shabaab before becoming disillusioned with the group's ideologies and returning to Canada last year. Well worth a read for anyone wondering what propels someone to leave the comforts of North America and head to a war zone.

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna Trade To Continue

As I mentioned in my previous post, a gathering of delegates to the CITES convention being held in Doha this week was considering whether to suggest a ban in the trade of Atlantic bluefin tuna. Yesterday those delegates voted 68-20 against an immediate ban, as well as voting 72-43 against a weaker proposal supported by the EU for a ban to commence next year (there are 175 members of CITES in all, though not every nation attended or voted). So fishing of the bluefin tuna will continue without restrictions.

The ban had been supported in general by the EU, as well as individual states including Monaco, the United States, the United Kingdom, Holland, Norway and Kenya, but their delegates were unable to sway other nations attending the convention, notably Japan, Canada and France.

France, though an EU member, felt that any ban should await further scientific research into the health of the tuna stocks. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was quoted in one media report as saying, "I hope that an irreversible decision will not be made until the danger of extinction is scientifically proved."

Meanwhile, Canadian Fisheries Minister Gail Shea expressed the view that, "Canada's position all along has been that this species should be managed through a regional fish management program," adding, "The challenge will be to strengthen ICCAT [the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna] to ensure that conservation measures are adhered to."

In other words, some nations heavily engaged in fishing feel an urgent need to do something to protect the bluefin population now, while others think the situation can be 'managed' until such time as there is irrefutable proof the species is doomed to extinction. Such is the way that international diplomacy works when it comes to as profitable a business as tuna fishing, where short-term prospects replace long-term stability.

As George Monbiot writes in his blog for The Guardian, the proposed ban(s) would have, indeed, put people out of work. "But the absence of a ban ensures that, after one or two more seasons of fishing at current levels, all the jobs and the entire industry are finished forever," he writes, continuing, "The insistence that the fishing can continue without consequences betrays Olympic-class denial, a flat refusal to look reality in the face."

Monbiot goes on to talk of how the scarcer bluefin become, the higher the price fishing firms can get for their reduced catches. It's simple economics: "Once the fish have been exterminated, the investors can just shift their vast profits into another industry." Such as the tuna stocks off Somalia.

If a group like CITES, which is supposed to protect endangered species, cannot find a way to deal with Atlantic bluefin tuna, one has to wonder how they'd fare with stocks in the Indian Ocean off the Horn of Africa.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Tuna & Somalia: Blood Fishing

Members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, better known as CITES (website here), are currently gathered in Doha, Qatar, to discuss a number of issues relating to the preservation of various species around the globe. Later this week, the delegates are to consider recommending an all-out ban on the trading of Atlantic bluefin tuna. It's an issue that has the support of many in the West, but is vigorously opposed by East Asian nations, notably Japan and South Korea.

The reason that CITES is considering a ban on the export of Atlantic bluefin is that it has been overfished, to the point that some observers wonder whether the species can survive at current levels of harvesting. (The Atlantic, or northern, bluefin tuna is found not only in that eponymous ocean but also the Mediterranean Sea and is a staple of raw food menus such as sushi and sashimi. About 80% of the annual catch is reported to end up in Japan.)

Global tuna populations of various species have been on the decline for some time, a reflection of increased consumer demand and more effective means of catching the fish. The CITES meeting comes close on the heels of that of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission's recent gathering in Busan, South Korea, in which the IOTC gave some thought to the yellowfin, skipjack and big eye tuna fisheries carried out the waters off East Africa, among other places. The IOTC put forth an idea to close the fishery off the Somali coastline to its members. This is something that the head of the World Wildlife Fund's Coastal East Africa Marine Programme, Dr. Amani Ngusaru, called a, "laughable measure".

When the IOTC uses the piracy problem off Somalia as a reason to curtail foreign fishing in those waters, things are indeed skewed. The problem, in this case, is not the pirates. It's the foreign fishing vessels working the seas in that part of the world, harvesting as much as they can catch and, in many cases, paying protection money to the pirate gangs in order to avoid being attacked. (On the IOTC website, they have a list of vessels they have identified as engaging in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the Indian ocean. That list totals all of three vessels in the last five years. It's safe to say this is far from comprehensive.)

Beyond this, though, comes the idea that if a bluefin tuna ban is put in place by CITES, there might be some fishers who will depart the Mediterranean for the seas off East Africa in search of yellowfins. Think of it as a sort of quid pro quo for firms with seasoned fishermen, well-equipped boats and an Asian market (European, too) that wants the product.

Think, too, that these self-same foreign fishers can relocate their vessels to the waters off Somalia by the summer, when piracy normally falls off owing to the sea conditions. If this does occur, it will give fodder to the apologists who say pirates are merely trying to defend their people from illegal- and over-fishing.

As I've said before, the international community should consider a comprehensive ban on foreign fishing off the Somali coast as a means of both undermining the moral highground being used by some pirate supporters and also as a way to support the local Somali fishery. Might also save some tuna, unless the pirates decide to get in on the export business themselves, which is not inconceivable.

And think about all this the next time you sit down for some sushi. Depending on where you are, the fish on your plate may be either caught from a species in danger or harvested off Somalia. Either way, today's tuna has become part of what my Kenyan colleague Andrew Mwangura calls 'blood fishing', just like blood diamonds.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Somali pirates branching out into other things?

Things have again been somewhat quiet off the Horn of Africa, owing to the sea conditions created by monsoon winds. This is a cyclical pattern like the summer monsoon, which makes it a bit safer for mariners transiting the region, though things will soon heat up again.

Yesterday saw a somewhat dramatic incident in which the Danish destroyer Absalon sank a suspected pirate gang's mothership off the eastern coast of Somalia, a pro-active event that many have hoped would occur. The Absalon is part of a NATO flotilla that also includes the American warship USS Boone, the Canadian frigate HMCS Fredericton and the British frigate HMS Chatham. (For more on the incident see here, here and EagleSpeak's great post here - Danish treat, indeed.)

But it appears that while things have been slow on sea for the pirates, the gangs have found another way to keep themselves busy and possibly make some money: hijacking UN World Food Programme trucks carrying aid through areas controlled by warlords. As reported by the BBC, three trucks and their drivers are being held by criminals in the Somali pirate port of Eyl, the first time such an incidence has occurred in that region of the country.

While pirates have previously hijacked vessels carrying humanitarian assistance to Somalia, this appears to mark the first time they have conducted land-based attacks against foreign targets. And the implications should be clear here: As we shut down the abilities of pirates to attack vessels and mariners at sea, they will turn their focus to other opportunities. Remember, these are skilled and well-armed guys whose main impetus is making money through the taking of hostages. So the problem of dealing with pirates off East Africa has moved to another level, a land-based level, which is where it will ultimately need to be addressed.

Unaddressed, these sorts of issues always come back to haunt us. Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda, militia warlords, pirates - there are a variety of things going on in Somalia that will affect that region as a whole, and merit the international community's attention.

Also, see this Reuters piece about coal shipments from South Africa (here). Things will most certainly get tougher for mariners in the next few months.