Why Did You Become a Pirate?

Chelsea Sauve

Somali Pirates on a ship

The Economic Conditions that are Pushing Somali Youth to Piracy

The question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is quite common in most Western circles. Answers include: a doctor, a lawyer, an actor, a public servant, a nurse, an accountant, a journalist, a psychologist or a teacher. The options are truly endless; almost without exception, every child in the Western world has access to any profession they wish to attain.

As the fast paced Hollywood film Captain Phillips captivates audiences, and Tom Hanks’s acting skills are (rightfully) lauded, I want to turn the lens to the main driver of the plot: the pirates themselves. In Captain Phillips an American cargo ship is boarded by four armed Somali pirates who proceed to reign terror on the ship in search of a monetary reward. The film itself does a fantastic job of depicting the humanity of both the crew and the pirates, and the juxtaposition of the lives led by the crew and pirates respectively. One of such juxtapositions is the notion of choice and accessibility.

Somalia, one of the world’s infamous failed states, has endured major economic hardship in the past number of decades.  Somalia’s central government collapsed in 1991, leaving the country in a steady spiral downwards afflicted with lawless, inter-clan violence that has led to great instability. The current transitional government, which rules over Somalia, struggles to exert control over large areas of the country and as such holds very little power over the warlords that rule outlying areas of the country.

All international efforts made to reconcile Somalia, which is still divided into clan fiefdoms, have failed, resulting in a country that continues to suffer from ineffective governance, famine, disease, militant extremism and now, piracy.

These dire circumstances have left the citizens of Somalia with very limited access to legal and profitable professions and thus very little choice as to how they will earn a living that will keep them afloat – even at a basic, subsistence level.

The Fishermen….

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In the Gulf of Aden (in the Indian Ocean) off the coast of Somalia, local fisherman once earned their livelihoods catching and selling large numbers of fish including red snapper, barracuda and tuna. It was not a question of what little boys would become when they came of age, it was simply a matter of when they would be old enough to take over the fisherman duties from their fathers or uncles.

Prior to the outbreak of the Somali Civil War in the late 1980s, the Somali Ministry of Fisheries and the Coastal Development Agency launched a development program, which focused upon the establishment of agricultural and fishery cooperatives for local Somali fishermen. The abundance of marine stock off of the Somali coast was seen as having great potential, and as such, the industry drew large foreign investment.

At the time, the Somali government permitted foreign fishing through official licensing or joint venture partnerships including the: Iraqi-Somali Siadco and Italian-Somali Somital agreements.However, after the collapse of the Somali central government, Somali waters were left undefended, thus allowing for illegal fishing and ultimate poaching. This illegal fishing has depleted the fish stock, thus depriving Somali fishermen of their livelihoods.

In order to protect their resources, local fishermen banded together beginning as a vigilante movement that soon morphed into a structured pirate operation.

…turned Pirates.

 The Gulf of Aden remains a part of one of the world’s most important commercial maritime transit corridors; however, since 2005 (during the second phase of the Somalia Civil War) international shipping regimes have faced the threat of Somali pirates. The economic costs of piracy have proven to be great. Fear of Somali pirates has diminished the transfer of goods through the shipping transit way and has thus limited shipments from Asia to Europe, as well as from Asia to Africa. To date, piracy has impeded the delivery of shipments and increased shipping expenses, costing an estimated $6.6 to $6.9 billion a year.

What began as a plot to protect Somali fisheries, soon turned into a profitable business venture.Over time, the vigilante gangs evolved into hijacking commercial vessels for ransom as an alternative source of income.

While in most hijackings, casualties do not occur, the pirates attack methods have involved holding crews and captains at gunpoint until ransom charges are paid. At which point, the pirates escape with the money garnered from the mission. The Somali pirate gangs have been assessed as being well trained and well armed, often times using maritime radios to monitor ship traffic through the area and track the nearest ship.

While the pirates themselves experience profit from piracy expeditions, they are not the only benefactors of the industry.According to the German Institute for Economic Research, insurance companies have profited from pirate attacks, raising premiums significantly. Consequently, insurers have an interest in maintaining piracy.

It’s Not Just Illegal Fishing that has Caused Frustrations….


Allegations continue to emerge blaming foreign governments for using the Somali shoreline as a dumpsite for the disposal of toxic waste.

Hazardous waste dumping in Somali shores has been common practice since the outbreak of the 1991 Somali Civil War; however, the practice started in the late 1980s when Swiss and Italian companies acted as brokers for the transportation of hazardous waste from Europe to dumps in Somalia.

After the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, waves along the Somali coast revealed tonnes of nuclear and toxic waste that was illegally dumped in Somali waters by several European firms.  Most often than not, these were front companies referred to as “unnamed European firms” that were established by the Italian mafia.

Following the dissolution of a central government in 1991, these unnamed firms established contracts with clan lords in which European bought guns and ammunition were provided to warlords on the provision that the lords allow for the continuation of toxic waste dumping along the Somali coast.

The Allure of Piracy

Economics lie at the heart of the Somali pirate movement. Motivations are monetary and at times dire.

The average Somali lives on less than $2 a day. While a profession as a fisherman was once considered profitable by Somali national economic standards, the chronic depletion of Somali fisheries from illegal poaching, as well as the dumping of toxic waste, has left many fishermen without a means to earn a livelihood. For Somali youth, the pirate life offers an enticing escape from the poverty and unemployment that otherwise await them.

Despite the dangers presented by hijacking cargo ships, Somali youth who would have once served as every day fishermen, have little choice but to join pirate gangs in order to meet their families very basic needs: food, shelter and clothing.

As such, it seems evident that the economic hardship faced by Somali fishermen is the main driver behind piracy in the Gulf of Aden. The threat of piracy will persist until Somalia’s economic conditions change. Consequently, for many Somali youth, piracy is seemingly the only viable career option.