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Yemenis Take Big Risks Fishing in Somali Waters
MUKALLA, September 19, 2007 - Yemeni fisherman Fadhel al-Nawbi, aged 27, swore he would never sail in Somali waters again. However, as soon as he returned to Mukalla (750km south of Sanaa) from yet another fishing expedition, he reassessed his two options: stay jobless or embark on yet another potentially dangerous fishing trip to the autonomous Somali region of Puntland.
“I have been sailing to different Somali cities for four years. To get to Somali waters can take up to three days depending on sea conditions. We go to coastal cities like Bosasso [Puntland’s main port]. We take food, ice [to keep the catch fresh] and fuel," he said.
Trips across the ocean are not easy and one has to expect death at any time, he said, adding: “Somali pirates, heavy rain and tidal waves can send shivers down the spine of even the most venturesome people.”
Yemeni fishermen and their Somali counterparts from Puntland have reached a kind of unofficial agreement: The Yemenis send their vessels to Somalia and then either get the Somalis to fish for them and buy the catch off them, or are allowed to fish for themselves on payment of a hefty fee. In the latter case the Puntland Ministry of Fisheries licenses the Yemeni fishermen to fish, and provides an armed man to go on board.
To get permission to fish, Yemeni boat-owners pay US$1,000 upfront to Puntland officials through an agent in Mukalla, southern Yemen. The Somali leaders' green light enables Yemeni fishermen to fish freely in Puntland territorial waters. The Somali agent pays US$300 for the hired guard.
If the Yemeni fishermen choose to buy a Somali catch - caught using the Yemeni boats - they have to pay $1,200 ($1,000 for the license, and $200 in tax). The catch for each vessel can usually be sold in Yemen for up to $10,000.
Yemeni fishermen say they face many hazards when on trips to Somalia. “When Somali pirates see our boats, they block our way and demand that we hand over diesel, petrol and food. They are hungry people. Sometimes they kidnap us and demand $20,000 to release us. We are helpless. We don't give them any money, because we don't take any with us. We contact the agent via radio and complain to him about his countrymen. The agent negotiates with them and later they free us - but usually after taking our possessions and insulting as well as intimidating us," said al-Nawbi. One of his friends was recently shot dead while being chased by Somali pirates.
Al-Nawbi and his friends are not handsomely paid but, for them, fishing in Somali waters is their only way of earning a living. “The owners of the vessels pay us about $150 for each trip. If there is a catch [a boatload of fish just caught by the Somalis and ready for sale] we take it and come back. But when there is no fish, we have to wait until the Somali fishermen fish for us.”
Puntland has complained about illegal fishing vessels from Yemen and their role in depleting fish stocks in Somali waters. Yemenis admit that many of their friends take part in looting Puntland’s marine wealth, which often costs them dear. “Once, friends of mine went fishing there and caught fish worth $5,000. The Somali fishermen took all of their catch,” said al-Nawbi.
The vessels’ owners in Hadhramaut, on the other hand, earn millions of rials selling the catch on the Yemeni market.
Omer Gameem, head of the Fishery Cooperative Union (FCU) in Mukalla, the umbrella organization for fishermen along Hadhramaut’s 360km-long coastline, advises fishermen not to go on individual fishing trips into Somali waters: "Fishermen should go in groups".
According to the FCU’s figures, there are about 12,197 fishermen in Hadhramaut who fish in 4,611 boats and vessels. Some 3,860 families depend on the income generated. The age of the fishermen is 16-40. The net catch for 2005 was estimated at 63,000 metric tones. Last year, the catch increased to 470,000 tones, said the FCU.