NAIROBI, Kenya — Frustrated by a string of failed hijacking attempts, Somali pirates have turned to a new business model: providing "security" for ships illegally plundering Somalia's fish stocks — the same scourge that launched the Horn of Africa's piracy era eight years ago.
Somali piracy was recently a fearsome trend that saw dozens of ships and hundreds of hostages taken yearly, but the success rate of the maritime hijackers has fallen dramatically over the last year thanks to increased security on ships and more effective international naval patrols.
Somali pirate gangs in search of new revenue are now providing armed protection for ships illegally fishing Somali waters. Erstwhile pirates are also trafficking in arms, drugs and humans, according to a report published this month by the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.
The security services for fishermen bring piracy full circle. Somali pirate attacks were originally a defensive response to illegal fishing and toxic waste dumping off Somalia's cost. Attacks later evolved into a clan-based, ransom-driven business.
Up to 180 illegal Iranian and 300 illegal Yemeni vessels are fishing Puntland waters, as well as a small number of Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean and European-owned vessels, according to estimates by officials in the northern Somali region of Puntland. International naval officials corroborate the prevalence of Iranian and Yemeni vessels, the U.N. report said.
Fishermen in Puntland "have confirmed that the private security teams on board such vessels are normally provided from pools of demobilized Somali pirates and coordinated by a ring of pirate leaders and associated businessmen operating in Puntland, Somaliland, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, Yemen and Iran," the report said.
The "security" teams help vessels cast nets and open fire on Somali fishermen in order to drive away competition. "The prize is often lucrative and includes large reef and open water catch, notably tuna," the report says.
The nearly 500-page U.N. report also accuses Somalia's government of wide-ranging corruption. In response, Somalia's presidential spokesman said that the report contains "numerous inaccuracies, contradictions and factual gaps."
"We are pleased to see the huge reduction in piracy, and yet equally concerned by the reports of increased criminality. We have much work to do to create legitimate livelihoods and deter Somalis from crime," said presidential spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman.
Somali piracy has been lucrative. The hijackings of 149 ships between April 2005 and the end of 2012 netted an estimated $315 million to $385 million in ransom payments, according to an April World Bank report.
But fishermen who have participated in piracy might argue that the attacks were merely bringing back money stolen from Somalis. A 2005 British government report estimated that Somalia lost $100 million in 2003-04 alone due to illegal tuna and shrimp fishing in Somali waters.
In Somalia, pirates sometimes refer to themselves as "saviors of the sea."
A piracy expert at the International Maritime Bureau, said the protection racket makes for a "potentially dangerous situation at sea."
"I guess the region has always been rich in this kind of organized crime," said Cyrus Mody. "I think that probably the positive side of all this is it's being highlighted which would hopefully give the government in place now enough movement to try and do something about it with the help of the EU and U.N."
Piracy peaked in 2009 and 2010, when 46 and 47 vessels were hijacked respectively, according to the European Union Naval Force. Hijackings dropped to 25 in 2011, five in 2012 and zero so far this year. Still, Somali pirates netted an estimated $32 million in ransoms last year, the U.N. report said.
One current pirate said he did not know about pirates providing protection to foreign fishing vessels, but he said some pirates are using Yemeni fishermen to smuggle weapons into Puntland.
"That's our current money-making business because ship hijackings have failed," a pirate commander who goes by the name Bile Hussein said by phone from Garacad, a pirate lair in central Somalia. "If you drop one business, you get an idea for another."