Bosaso, Somalia – A region in Somalia is cracking down on an upsurge in illegal fishing off its coast as fleets flock to waters where foreign naval forces have been taking on the pirates that make fishing a risky business.

Describing illegal fishing as “a national disaster”, President Abdiweli Ali Gas of the autonomous state of Puntland, in the country’s northeast, ordered four South Korean trawlers into port following claims they broke local laws.

Environmentalists used satellite technology to document the vessels trawling the seabed for catches that Al Jazeera discovered are mostly ending up in Italy – despite European Union regulations banning imports of illegally caught fish.

Scientists are warning unregulated trawling of the seabed may have devastated the marine environment and fish populations along Somalia’s 3,300km coastline, the longest in Africa but one where certain species are particularly vulnerable to overfishing.

“Illegal fishing operators prey on coastal countries where the authorities cannot monitor and control their activities,” Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, told Al Jazeera. “Typically these are places where local communities rely heavily on fishing for food and jobs.”

‘Protection’ from pirates

Following allegations that the South Korean vessels had been breaking fishing laws – despite having licences to operate in the region – Puntland’s president ordered the trawlers into the port of Bosaso. The ships are believed to have flouted laws on where and how they can fish, with local fishing communities complaining the trawlers are operating just 3.2km from shore.

“The fact that product from the vessels we have tracked operating in Puntland continues to find its way into Europe is evidence of the need to strengthen the implementation of the EU’s efforts to block IUU [illegal, unreported and unregulated] imports,” said Trent.

An official from Puntland’s Ministry of Fisheries, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, said the 500-tonne ships regularly fish in protected areas, endangering local fishermen, and reportedly catching species relied upon by communities that face what the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says are “critical” food shortages.

Puntland’s crackdown forms part of a wider campaign by authorities to protect the region’s marine resources amid warnings that foreign naval action to reduce piracy is fuelling illegal fishing. In June, Gas called illegal fishing “a national disaster” and said it “needed to be stopped”.

“Our forces and the coastguard unit will operate effectively to fight heavily against the illegal fishing,” the president told a press conference.

His move follows separate investigations by local officials and the Environmental Justice Foundation, a UK-based non-governmental organisation, which documented the vessels trawling the seabed off Puntland before transporting their catches to the port of Salalah in Oman.

Using intelligence provided by seafood traders, Al Jazeera discovered the catches are typically frozen and loaded into shipping containers in Salalah and are then exported to Italy, with some of the fish also heading for Japan, China, South Korea, and Ivory Coast.

The four vessels – Ixthus 7, Ixthus 8, Ixthus 9 and Baek Yang 37 – are all listed on the European Commission’s website as accredited to export seafood to the EU. Information obtained by Al Jazeera shows large volumes of fish caught by the fleet and valued at about $40m may have entered the EU since 2006.

Italy’s largest food service distributor, MARR SpA, confirmed it bought fish from the South Korean vessels operating in Puntland as recently as this year, insisting the owner of the vessels “claimed to have legal licences”.

However, piracy in Somalia’s waters has made foreign fishing boats seeking to net the tuna and spiny lobster that are highly prized in international seafood markets, heavily reliant on the “protection” of Somali clans.

In 2011, the UN Monitoring Group raised concerns about the South Korean vessels’ activities in Somalia and emphasised that none of them had ever reported an attack by Somali pirates – despite being active in waters plagued by piracy.

The Monitoring Group observed that “the sale of licences to foreign vessels in exchange for fishing rights has acquired the features of a large-scale ‘protection racket’, indistinguishable in most respects from common piracy”.

European threat

In late 2013, the European Commission warned imports of fish from South Korean vessels could be banned unless the country takes steps to monitor and control its fishing fleet.

Based on findings detailing illegal activities in West Africa – where an investigation by Al Jazeera in 2012 uncovered illegal fishing in Sierra Leone – the Commission said South Korean-flagged vessels had been operating without licences and in protected areas, hiding their markings, changing their identities, and transferring their catches to other boats at sea illegally.

One of the South Korean trawlers currently fishing in Somalia, Baek Yang 37, previously operated illegally in the waters of Sierra Leone’s neighbour Guinea. Other boats in the fleet previously fished in Yemen and Oman before both countries banned bottom trawling.

The use of armed guards to protect fishing activity in Somalia risks leading to an escalation in the presence and use of weapons in Somali waters. – UN official

 

Experts say the clampdown on illegal and unsustainable fishing in many countries is prompting South Korean boats to search out fishing grounds in countries such as Somalia, where monitoring and control are weak and the payment of bribes to obtain licences is reportedly common.

Under pressure from the EU, South Korea’s government is reported to be taking steps to investigate its fishing fleet, establishing a monitoring centre and strengthening its ability to punish wrongdoers.

Although it has not so far asked its vessels to leave Puntland, there are reports that authorities in Seoul have stopped signing the certificates required to export fish to the EU until the situation is clarified.

The agent for the South Korean vessels, Captain Issa Farah of the North East Fishing Company, has declined to comment on the terms of the licences sold to them or the legality of their activities.

The European Commission was contacted by Al Jazeera but has not commented on the case. It is likely that member states will be asked to increase checks on imports of fish from the Indian Ocean to ensure illegal catches from Somalia do not end up on European plates.

A UN official – who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to talk to the media – warned illegal fishing does not only pose a threat to Somalia’s fish resources.

“The use of armed guards to protect fishing activity in Somalia risks leading to an escalation in the presence and use of weapons in Somali waters. Given the recent history of piracy, this is clearly a worrying situation.”

Andy Hickman worked on the Al Jazeera pirate fishing investigation in Sierra Leone