Yemen's fishermen caught between Somali pirates and pirate hunters

Attacks by both Somali pirates and international ships hunting them have crippled Yemen's fishing business, the tiny country's second-largest export industry after oil.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

As piracy continues off the coast of Somalia, fishermen from the nearby nation of Yemen find themselves caught in the crossfire between the lawless pirates and the foreign powers patrolling the Gulf of Aden.

"For our fishermen, piracy has become a daily problem," says Omar Gambeet, chairman of the Fishermen Cooperative Union (FCC) based in the southern Yemeni port city Mukalla, a center for fishing in the country. "This problem has worried Yemeni fishermen, and they are too scared from going into the deep sea to fish."

Armed pirates have taken over the boats of Yemeni fishermen in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden and used them as human shields while carrying out attacks on international shipping vessels. The pirates also use Yemenis' large dhows as storage facilities for their weapon supplies.

The Yemeni fishermen also have come under attack from international coalition forces off Yemen's coast either as collateral damage in the war against piracy or because international navies have mistaken the Yemenis for Somali pirates.

"Put yourself in the shoes of a commander of a warship," says Peter Lehr, piracy expert and professor of terrorism studies at St. Andrew's University, "You see a mother ship, you treat them as pirates, and then you find out later that there were civilians or hostages on board, and it's too late."

On May 26, two Yemeni fishermen from the port city Hodeidah were killed in the Red Sea by an international warship of unknown origin that allegedly was conducting anti-piracy patrols in the area.

Fishermen mistaken for pirates

According to Mr. Gambeet, coalition forces pose an even greater threat than pirates to Yemeni fishermen. The problem, he says, is that Somali pirates use Yemeni fishing boats displaying Yemen's flag, which has led to the belief that Yemenis are aiding Somali pirates.

Last month, a Yemeni fishing boat was stolen from the port at Mukalla in the middle of the night, Gambeet says. He suspects that it's now being used by pirates.

Ambar Bokheet, a Yemeni fisherman from Hadramawt Administrative Division, says he was approached by an Indian naval ship about 75 miles off Yemen's coast in April. The Indians forced all the Yemenis to jump into the sea and demanded that they hand over their weapons, he says. As Mr. Bokheet's fellow crew members were treading water, he was asked to speak with an officer on the Indian ship.

"He asked me: 'Where are your weapons?' I told him: 'We don't have weapons. We are only fishermen. Look at all the fish here,'" Bokheet says. "There were young people who couldn't swim well, so all the men held each other to stay afloat. I told the soldier that those people will die in the sea."

After two hours the Indians allowed the fishermen to go free, but not before they spoiled the Yemenis' fish, Bokheet says.

The Indian Embassy in Sanaa has refused to comment on the issue.

"We were happy that there would be coalition forces and would like to thank them for guarding our sea, but some of those have misrepresented the job of the coalition forces," Gambeet says. "They attack our fishermen. Instead of guarding them, they attack them."

According to Yemen's Ministry of Fisheries, 10 fishermen have been killed by either pirates or international navies since the beginning of 2007. These fatalities, coupled with the major economic toll piracy has taken on the country, merit an international fund to assist Yemen, says Deputy Minister of Fisheries Abdulla Basunbul.

"We would like for the international countries affected by piracy to financially support Yemen," he says.

The economic toll

Fish and fish products are Yemen's second largest export after oil. Since the beginning of 2009, Gambeet says that Hadramawt Administrative Division has lost about $150,000 because Yemeni fishermen are now too scared to venture into their pirate-infested fishing grounds.

"It has affected the country because we depend on fishery products as a major export," Mr. Basunbul says. "In the coastal areas all people work in fishing, so now people in Hadramawt and other areas don't have any work."

In impoverished and unstable Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, many out-of-work fishermen end up staying home and relying on government stipends.

Lost work could foment unrest

The decline of the fishing industry is one of many problems now facing the Yemeni government, says Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University. "As Yemen's economic problems continue, the various strands of popular frustration and grievances are coalescing into one loose coalition of anti-government opposition.

Shawgy Jumain, also from Hadramawt, relies on compensation from the FCC to support his wife and four children, praying for the day when the seas will once again be safe for fishing. He experienced the perils of Somali piracy first hand when, in May 2008, pirates seized the boats of Mr. Jumain and 22 fellow fishermen while they were in Yemen's territorial waters. After the pirates failed to find an international ship to attack using the Yemeni fishermen as decoys, they took the men to Somalia where they were held hostage.

"When we arrived there they asked for $75,000 for our ransom," Jumain says. "They said: 'If you give us this ransom we will release you.' They told us that it's nothing in comparison with the money they ask from the international ships. We told them that we are fishermen and we don't have anything."

After two days, the pirates released Jumain and the others after looting all their belongings and sending the beaten down fishermen back to Yemen in one small boat and with "the clothes on our backs," Jumain recounted.

"The coalition navies are everywhere in the sea," he says, "but the problem of the pirates is still growing, and they aren't solving it."

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