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A Fishing War Off Somalia?

Despite some successes in thwarting Somali pirates, itchy trigger fingers may serve no one's interests except for private security agencies.

When pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama for a second time this year on Nov. 18, a private security team fought them off. The reaction in the American press was instant. "Lesson from foiled pirate attack on the Maersk Alabama?" wrote the Christian Science Monitor. "Fire back."

Some observers fell over themselves advising Spain to arm its fishing boats, because a Spanish tuna trawler, the Alakrana, had just been released a day earlier for a reported (and record-breaking) ransom of $3.3 million. The Spanish government had already changed its law in October to allow fishing vessels to carry weapons. And on Sunday another Spanish trawler was attacked by two persistent pirate skiffs. The Ortube Berria had an armed team aboard and shook the pirates only with gunfire.

"They would not give up. They would simply not give up," the trawler's captain said. "If we had not been armed, they would have caught us."

The kneejerk response is: So what? It's a dangerous world, and if ship owners and their crews want to risk an escalation with pirates by hiring private gunmen, well, firms like Xe (formerly Blackwater) are here to help.

But hiring armed teams to defend fishing boats is a delicate matter. European trawlers like the Ortube Berria and the Alakrana have been unwelcome off Somalia for years because in the absence of a strong Somali government, they've been known to help themselves to the fish. These fishing disputes, from some Somalis' point of view, led to piracy in the first place.

"And now foreign fishermen are hiring private security, which is a little scary," said Stig Jarle Hansen, a Horn of Africa expert at the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research. "Some of these companies I don't trust. And now they will go into Somali waters," he predicted, "and there you can have increased armed clashes not just between pirates and private security but even between full-time fishermen and private security."

One reason for the fishing chaos off Somalia is not just a lack of local enforcement, but a failure by the Somali government to assert its "economic zone" in the water - conventionally a 200-mile band of control. Territorial waters reach 12 miles out to sea, but since a U.N. agreement in 1982, a nation's "exclusive economic zone," or EEZ, can extend 200 miles before the ocean becomes a free-for-all.

Like a lot of African countries, said Hansen, the Somalis never formally claimed an EEZ. "So the argument amongst some of the illegal fishermen is that this zone has not been declared. That's why they say it's possible to go in and fish."

But legal experts say the argument is weak, since the international precedent of a 200-mile EEZ is so well established. The U.N. declared it enforceable as part of its 1994 Convention of the Law of the Sea.

America, at first glance, has no dog in this race. But the conflict between Somali and European fishermen is a precise echo of the so-called "tuna war" off Ecuador in the 1960s and '70s, when Ecuador, Chile and Peru were trying to assert a 200-mile fishing zone for themselves. American tuna boats recognized a 3-mile limit. When Ecuador seized and fined an American vessel in 1963, a series of escalations — seizures, warning shots, formal trade sanctions — continued for at least eight years, until governments in the Western Hemisphere came to an informal agreement on 200-mile zones. That agreement set the precedent for the U.N.'s 1982 convention.

Europe and Africa are engaged in a similar struggle now: Illegal foreign fishing is a problem up and down the African coast. But fishermen in the Americas waged this war without large-scale piracy, without rocket-propelled grenades and without private commando teams on their tuna trawlers. The Somali situation is at risk of becoming entrenched.

"A whole entire business has grown out of piracy," said Hansen — and not just among Somali pirate masters. "You have a lot of private security consultants, who do pirate negotiations, risk management and so on. It's a big industry on the Western side of things, with a big interest in keeping things going."

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