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Was Captain Richard Phillips The Victim of Pirates or Overfishing?

Updated on March 5, 2012
Maersk-Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips, right, shakes hands with Lt. Cmdr. David Fowler, executive officer of USS Bainbridge after being rescued by U.S Naval Forces, April 12, 2009.
Maersk-Alabama Capt. Richard Phillips, right, shakes hands with Lt. Cmdr. David Fowler, executive officer of USS Bainbridge after being rescued by U.S Naval Forces, April 12, 2009.

The entire world breathed a sigh of relief on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009, when Captain Richard Phillips, was freed from his Somali captors. As everyone knows Captain Phillips and his crew were taken hostage by Somali pirates. Capt. Phillips courageously offered himself as hostage; so, his crew would be set free.

The theory is being put forward now that Captain Phillips and his crew are actually the victims of overfishing. How can a hostage-taking be linked with overfishing? The theory is:

Thousands of Somalis once made their living as fishermen. The waters around the coastline of Somalia once teemed with fish providing an adequate living for the fishermen, their families and all the trickle-down businesses that flourished because of the fishing trade. However, Somalia has been without a central government for nearly two decades; so, there is no government body that is actively and effectively protecting the country’s rights to its coastline. Foreign countries have been willing to take advantage of this; and, exploit the fisheries off Somalia’s coast leaving the nets of the local fishermen empty.

WE (wealthy Europeans) have overfished and overexploited our own stocks; so, now we feel justified in helping ourselves to theirs. This from Johann Hari, columnist for the London Independent:

More than $300m worth of tuna, shrimp, lobster and other sea-life is being stolen every year by vast trawlers illegally sailing into Somalia's unprotected seas. The local fishermen have suddenly lost their livelihoods, and they are starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: "If nothing is done, there soon won't be much fish left in our coastal waters."

But never let it be said that Europeans take things out without putting something else back in. In return for the fish they were harvesting illegally within Somalian waters, they repaid them with mysterious barrels thrown over the side of equally mysterious European ships.

Coincidentally, it was about this time that the coastal population began to get sick. Strange rashes developed accompanied by nausea. There was an increase in the number of deformed babies being born among the coastal populations. Then came the 2005 tsunami.

Give things a heck of a shaking and it’s amazing what pops out. Hundreds of dumped, leaking barrels were washed up on shore. People within close proximity to the barrels developed radiation sickness with over 300 eventually dying.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, told Johann Hari: "Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury - you name it."

Again from Johann Hari:

Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to "dispose" of cheaply. When I asked Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: "Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention."

Watching your loved ones starve (sometimes to death) brings a special kind of desperation and many of the fishermen took matters into their own hands. Many of these “pirates” began as vigilante patrol squads challenging vessels that were either fishing illegally or dumping toxic waste in Somali waters and demanded they pay a tax. This proved ineffective and these vigilantes organized into the “pirates” you see today.

The New York Times has an enlightening interview with a Somali “pirate” (given after his capture) who assisted in taking a Ukrainian vessel carrying a huge load of weapons to the Sudan.

So…you be the judge? Is Captain Phillips a victim of pirates or overfishing?

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