- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 28, 2009

ADEN, Yemen | Deeply tanned teenage boys dragged four yellowfin tuna off the small fishing boat and ran up the beach. The boys were strong, but the fish were fat and at least three feet long. They slapped the fish down in the concrete and tile market. It was dinner time, and hungry shoppers were looking to buy.

Anwar Abdulkader Aisa, who fishes for tuna and kingfish in his 23-foot boat, said he still makes a living in the Gulf of Aden, but his income has been cut in half. One third of the piracy in the world takes place in the gulf, a roughly 200-mile wide strip of water that separates Yemen from Somalia.

About a year ago, international forces moved into the area to fight a rising threat from Somali pirates. Led by the European Union, the armada relies on naval support from NATO and more than 25 countries, including the United States, China, Russia and India. But despite the display of military might, piracy in the area doubled in 2009, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

One of the world’s busiest sea lanes, more than 25,000 merchant ships pass through the Gulf of Aden every year. Between January and September this year, there were 100 attempted and actual pirate attacks. There were half as many during the same period last year. In 2005, there were eight.

Traditional fishermen, who catch most of Yemen’s fish exports, are caught in the middle. “[The pirates] will kill you for a small thing like a boat engine,” Mr. Aisa said. “The international forces are also a threat.”

Standing on a small beach on a muggy night in November, he said aircraft from all over the world harass fishermen in Yemeni-flagged traditional fishing boats. Almost every day they hover over his boat, he said. Usually they move on after they are convinced the boat is for fishing. About seven of his colleagues have been arrested.

Because the international operations are massive, Mr. Aisa thinks the pirates could have been crushed long ago. “It’s a great force,” he said. “It could occupy the whole world.”

But Somali officials say that the international forces are not trying to stop piracy; instead they are protecting their own illegal fishing boats. They say widespread illegal fishing in Somali waters has forced fishermen to turn to piracy to make a living. And now, the international community is using pirates as an excuse to send more fishing boats.

“If all the piracy was gone, this coalition would continue,” said Hussein Hagi Ahmed, the Somali consul in Aden. He also said 90 percent of the fish coming out of Somali waters, famous for stores of tuna, snapper and shark, are taken illegally.

Naval forces sent to fight piracy are often intended to protect their fishing boats, not stop the pirates, he said. Somali people, suffering from war, drought and crushing poverty, are increasingly sympathetic to the pirates.

“People believe the coalition came to protect illegal fisheries,” Mr. Ahmed said. “Not to fight pirates.”

But IMB officials say Somali pirates have stepped up their operations in the Gulf of Aden because they are increasingly capable of hijacking boats far from their shores, and the trade route through the gulf that connects Europe and Asia hosts lucrative prey.

“This basically makes it very attractive to pirates who can pick and choose vessels,” said Cyrus Mody, manager of the IMB.

And although illegal fishing and the dumping of toxic waste in Somali waters may have inspired some fishermen to turn to piracy, it is now big business, he added. “They have come a long way from trying to protect their waters from illegal fishing,” he said.

According to Mr. Mody, instability in Somalia - which hasn’t had a functional government since civil war broke out in 1991 - is the primary reason for the growing presence of piracy in the Gulf of Aden. The chaos in Somalia, he said, is “giving pirates a free hand to do what they want.”

In the first nine months of this year, 18 ships were hijacked and more than 300 hostages were taken from the Gulf of Aden. Worldwide, 661 hostages were taken during that time period, most by suspected Somali pirates. Six hostages were killed, and eight are still missing.

Pirate attacks continue to occur almost daily.

Nabile Farouk, who has been fishing the Gulf of Aden and off the east coast of Somalia for over 20 years, said Yemeni fishermen now steer clear of the Somali coast, where they used to fish for tuna, abundant there. Like Mr. Aisa, his income has been cut in half.

Sometimes fishermen don’t work for days because of reports of pirate activities in the gulf. Earlier this month, pirates stole a colleague’s boat and left him floating on a wooden palate. The fisherman drifted for one day and one night before he was rescued by another boat passing by.

“We are afraid because there is no security,” Mr. Farouk said. “We fear pirates because they are armed and we are not.”

But piracy is not just a problem for fishermen and shipping companies, according to business leaders in Yemen. Once one of the most important ports in the world, international companies have been avoiding investing in the port of Aden because of the danger in the water, and businesses all over Yemen are feeling the crunch. Even before the surge in piracy, foreign investors were wary of working in Aden after suicide bombers killed 17 American sailors in the 2000 USS Cole attack.

“Piracy is like a cancer on the whole region,” said Mohamad Al-Awadi, the head of the General Investment Authority in Hadramout, in a speech at an Aden business conference in mid-November.

Mr. Al-Awadi advocated the use of force to stop the pirates, but international maritime organizations caution that putting armed guards on boats could lead to an arms race at sea. Somali pirates, already carrying automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, could become more violent.

According to the Yemen Coast Guard, more force is needed to keep the waters safe. The coast guard, which was established five years ago, is too small, new and under-funded to catch pirates, according to Col. Lutf al-Barati, the head of the Yemeni Coast Guard in Aden.

Pirate boats travel more than 50 mph, while the fastest coast guard boats travel about 35 mph, he said. “You can’t even catch up to them,” he added.

But fishermen in Aden say they would rather work with the Yemen Coast Guard than the international forces, which are almost as scary as the armed pirates.

Mahran Omayran, who fishes the gulf in a 30-foot boat with his four-man crew, said he sees international forces in the waters almost every day. Helicopters hover over his boat and fire randomly. Officers are sometimes sent to board and search the boat and men are ordered to undress. “They know that we are fishermen,” he said.

But according to Mr. Aisa, anything can happen in the Gulf of Aden these days. Pirates regularly steal boat engines, and fishermen are regularly arrested. About nine months ago, some of his friends found four pirates drifting at sea with no engine, sail, food or water. They saved the pirates and turned them in to Yemeni authorities.

“The pirates were going to die, but they rescued them,” he said. “Now [the pirates] are in jail.”

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