Blockade of Yemeni Ports Has Unintended Consequences on Food Security, Somali Fishing IndustryApril 23, 2015 By Sarah Glaser
Hundreds of Yemenis have been killed since Houthi rebels overthrew President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi at the beginning of April. The instability next door has led Saudi Arabia to intervene with a bombing campaign and, most recently, impose a blockade of Yemen’s port cities to cut off what they claim is Iranian resupply of rebels. Besides blocking weapons though, the blockade is also having a major impact on food security and food assistance, and is even affecting livelihoods in Somalia.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 10.6 million Yemenis are food insecure and nearly 5 million are facing emergency conditions characterized by malnutrition and lack of food access. The rapid escalation of fighting has increased domestic food prices and disrupted food markets.
But while most attention has been on terrestrial agriculture, the impact of fighting on marine fisheries is also a critical concern. My research with Cullen Hendrix shows, on average, the outbreak of civil conflict depresses fish catch by 16 percent in a given country. Events unfolding in the Gulf of Aden paint a complex picture of environmental security, how conflict affects those who depend on fisheries, and the potential for long-term repercussions.
A History of Exchange
Yemen’s marine fish catch has increased 10-fold since the 1970s. To sustain this increase, fishers have expanded their reach into Somali waters. In 1994, an agreement was reached with local authorities in Heis, whereby Yemenis would deliver fuel in exchange for rights to fish in Somali waters. Such arrangements continue today, but in a slightly different form: Yemenis bring fuel and ice (which is subsidized in Yemen, but difficult to come by in Somalia) and in exchange purchase fish directly from Somali fishers at favorable prices.Civil conflict depresses fish catch by 16 percent in a given country
But as stocks in Yemeni waters have declined due to heavy fishing, more and more boats have crossed into Somali waters without license. Estimates suggest that before the blockade between 200 and 300 Yemeni boats were fishing illegally in Somali waters at any given time. Our calculations at the Secure Fisheries Project of the One Earth Future Foundation translate this to almost 29,000 metric tons of fish per year, or about 10 percent of Yemen’s total catch.
Mahad Awale, a field manager in Puntland for the non-profit Shuraako, says the number of Yemeni fishing boats coming to Somalia has dropped to almost zero since the blockade began. According to the State Minister for Fisheries and Marine Resources in Puntland, Abdi Kulmiye, Yemenis that came to trade fuel for fish usually made three trips a month, carrying home between 10 and 18 metric tons of fish per trip. For those living in coastal cities where fish protein is an important part of the diet, the cessation of these trips will exacerbate already critical food shortages.
Spillover Effects in Somalia
The interruption of this trade has also impacted Somalis. Without a Yemeni market, Somali fishers have taken their catch from Bosasso to the major port city of Berbera, almost 900 kilometers away by road. On average, the prices obtained in Berbera are lower than those from Yemeni boats, and our sources suggest the ability of the Berbera market to absorb excess fish is likely short-lived. Furthermore, without access to ice brought from Yemen, Somali fishers risk spoilage of current inventory. One Puntland-based fishing company reports a 50 percent decline in profits since the outbreak of conflict, largely driven by a decline in fish prices. The short-term effects, therefore, are likely to be negative for Somali fish traders.
On the other hand, long-term impacts may be a boon. For almost 18 years, Yemen has dominated the fish market in Somalia and a significant amount of that catch is re-exported to Djibouti, Oman, and Dubai. Awale notes that Somali fishers have expressed optimism that the current shock to their markets may have a diversifying effect by removing Yemen as a price-setter and intermediary. Somali fishers stand to earn higher profits if they can sell directly to other regional markets.
Piracy Puts Iran on the Doorstep
Finally, despite the domestic damage, the absence of illegal Yemeni fishing boats during the conflict may improve Somali fish catch. While fish populations in Somalia were regarded as pristine two decades ago, Somalis today complain of reduced catches and blame illegal foreign fishing. Concerns about declining stocks are borne out by a forthcoming sustainability analysis by the Secure Fisheries Project. During the early years of piracy off the Horn of Africa, there was even discussion about the extent to which destruction caused by foreign fishing and illegal dumping might have provided justification for locals to take up violence.Environmental security concerns often lag behind – both in time and priority
In an interesting twist, illegal foreign fishing has re-emerged as a justification for Somali pirates to take hostage foreign vessels. In late March, Somali pirates took hostage two Iranian fishing vessels that were in Somali waters without license. Iran deployed two warships to the Gulf of Aden in response on April 8, which has in turn provoked additional naval deployment from the United States and Saudi Arabia. While the Iranian navy maintains the deployment of these warships is to protect its fishing fleet, their presence near Yemen may also provide support to the Houthi rebels.
The most immediate impact of the current violence in Yemen is on the civilian population, as the Saudi-led bombing campaign claims civilian lives, destroys infrastructure, and disrupts markets. But indirect and long-term impacts on fishing communities, both in Yemen and Somalia, could be substantial as well. Environmental security concerns often lag – both in time and priority – behind more immediate security concerns, but the impacts could be significantly longer lasting.
Sarah Glaser is a research associate for the Secure Fisheries Project at the One Earth Future Foundation and a research scientist at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.
Sources: Agence France-Presse, CBS News, The Independent, Journal of Peace Research, Kabissa, The New York Times, One Earth Future Foundation, Reuters, Shuraako, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, UN News Service, UN Security Council.
Photo Credit: A Somali fisher leaves Berbera Harbor, Somaliland, used with permission courtesy of Jean-Pierre Larroque/One Earth Future Foundation.