Piracy Perspectives
by Sarah Gillig -- November 1st, 2013

Hi all,

Things have been busy busy busy for me, but I wanted to take a quick minute to share something I learned this past week that put some things into perspective for me.

So by now, you’ve probably figured out that I’ll be saying something about pirates in here. Just so you know, it’s not that I was a pirate for Halloween–this year I was a….zombified grad student. I didn’t even need a costume!

Back to the topic at hand. To be honest, I don’t really think about pirates all that much (a bit more now that I’m on the coast, because there’s a lot of pirate history, what with Blackbeard’s ship the Queen Anne’s Revenge sinking nearby, etc., but still not that much). When I do think about pirates, it’s definitely more of the Errol Flynn variety, or maybe Anne Bonny and Mary Reade–definitely 17th century.

But piracy is still happening, and not just online.


Image from the US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons. Taken by Mass communication specialist 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky.

Dr. James Kraska, a McCurdy Visiting Scholar down at the Marine Lab, came to my Political Ecology class recently to help us understand the context of Somali piracy, which is a major international economic and security issue (and if you want to see Hollywood’s take on one piracy incident, you can go watch Captain Phillips, out now in theaters).

Dr. Kraska’s talk highlighted the cultural and political situation in Somalia that lead to the development of piracy. Start with the longest coastline in Africa (over 2000 miles), add a culture based around highland pastoral clans with lots of internal conflict as well as some marginalized coastal fishermen and high unemployment (60%), and then throw in some international fishing vessels that start overfishing the resource. Not a good situation to be in. The local fishermen were competing with better-equipped, foreign fishing vessels, and watching their fish stocks dwindle.

So the Somali fishermen started to request compensation from the foreign vessels (after all, they were fishing in their waters and taking all their fish). The ‘requests’ eventually became ‘demands’, and then local militias realized that the Somali fishermen had a good idea, and took it a step further–to piracy.

The situation is, of course, more complex than I’m painting it here, and if you want more information, check out Dr. Kraska’s book on the subject,  Contemporary Maritime Piracy: International Law, Strategy, and Diplomacy at Sea.  His talk was fascinating, so I’ll be checking it out myself over break!

The thing that really struck me though was that I could see how, for these people, piracy is the rational choice.  It’s employment in a place where the unemployment rate is 60%, it’s safer than being in one of the militias (since there’s a lot of conflict, your chances of getting killed are higher than they are if you’re a pirate), and it pays a lot more than any other gig going ($150,000-250,000 per incident, per pirate, is a lot of money).  The other thing that surprised me is that now that everyone knows that piracy is a problem off the coast of Somalia, those foreign fishing vessels who were competing with the Somali fishermen have stayed out of the area (no one wants to be taken hostage), so the fish stock is recovering and the Somali fishermen are doing much better than they were before. The pirates have a secondary and unintentional function as fishery boundary enforcers, bringing the story full-circle, in a sense.

There’s been a scramble to figure out how to legally deal with this kind of piracy (apparently government was thinking about pirates the way I used to and doesn’t have a lot of policy in place), but as Dr. Kraska showed us, the piracy problem came about because of a lot of factors within Somalia. Rather than just dealing with the piracy, someone will have to deal with the problems that caused it.

Hope you had a delightfully spooky Halloween!

Tides for Friday, Nov. 1st, Beaufort, NC:

Low: 12:13 AM, 0.32 ft

High: 6:37 AM, 3.75 ft

Low: 12:50 PM, 0.38 ft

High: 6:51 PM, 3.34 ft


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