Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Libya's Tuna Poachers

It seems like there's an unexpected casualty in the Libyan civil war: bluefin tuna.  According to a report by the BBC, fishing fleets allegedly took advantage of the months of chaotic fighting that led up to the fall of the Gadhafi regime to plunder tuna stocks within Libyan waters.  Bluefin tuna are a critically-threatened species, and the Mediterranean Sea is one of their spawning grounds, so catches of wild tuna are strictly regulated.  But plotting data from ICCAT - the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (yes, there is such a group) - shows that an unusually large number of fishing trawlers sailed into Libyan waters during the spring and summer of this year.  Normally Libya's navy would patrol their waters and keep out any poachers, but the Libyan navy was blockaded in port by NATO naval forces, leaving Libyan waters otherwise unprotected.

There's a strange irony at work here.  Many of the feared pirates of Somalia claim to have once been honest fishermen.  But, they say, that industrial fishing fleets from Europe and Asia took advantage of the collapse of Somalia's national government in 1991to scouring the fishing grounds off the Somali coast, leaving little for the largely subsistence-level Somali fishermen to catch.  Some of the pirates have even said that they consider themselves to be Somalia's de facto coast guard, seizing ships that are illegally operating in Somali waters since there is no federal government to enforce the law.  Just to bring this full circle, it is also worth noting that the United States' first foreign military campaign was fighting the pirates of the Barbary Coast (which includes present-day Libya) who preyed on American merchant ships at the dawn of the 19th century.

Of course it is doubtful that Libya will sink into a Somali-like state of lawlessness that would allow for a new generation of Barbary pirates, but the tuna-poaching shows that securing their territorial waters will be yet another unexpected challenge for Libya's new rulers.
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