Pirates terrorize Nigeria's fishing fleet
LAGOS, Nigeria: Early this year, the crew of the Mareena 1 fishing trawler had just finished hauling in their catch 15 miles off the coast and were settling into their bunks for a few hours of sleep when they were awakened by machine-gun fire.
Nine heavily armed men in a speedboat attacked the trawler, and the boat's cook was shot in the stomach. He bled to death while the pirates, who had boarded the boat, ate, took naps and stole everything that was not welded down.
"There were attacks before, but it's the worst now," said Geoffrey, the captain of the Mareena 1, who gave only his first name out of fear of reprisals. "Formerly, we had hijackings and they would steal everything, but now they attack and they are shooting and taking lives."
The waters off the 530-mile Nigerian coastline have been called the most dangerous in the world by a maritime watchdog group after a precipitous rise in the number of attacks over the past year. And while kidnappings of foreigners and attacks on oil installations in Nigeria have gained international attention, it is often those with a far lower profile who bear the greatest burden of the lawlessness at sea.
Pirate attacks on fishing trawlers increased from 4 reported cases in 2003 to 107 in 2007, according to the Nigerian Trawler Owners Association. In January this year, there were 50 attacks on fishing boats. At least 10 fishermen were killed.
Until recently, Nigeria was Africa's largest supplier of crude oil (Angola has overtaken it), and it is the fifth biggest exporter of oil to the United States. But for years it has been dogged by violence and kidnappings in its oil-producing Niger Delta region. Some of the violence has been politically motivated, carried out by groups seeking to gain control over the region's oil wealth, but the bulk of it has been the work of criminal gangs and pirates.
After more than 200 foreigners were kidnapped in the Delta in 2007, foreign oil companies pulled out all of their nonessential employees and increased security rather than rely on the undermanned Nigerian Navy. With foreign vessels no longer an easy target, pirates have been forced to look elsewhere for their victims.
They found them in the defenseless fishing trawlers that chug up and down the coastlines, never far enough from shore to be out of reach of the pirates' gun-mounted speedboats.
The surge in deadly attacks on fishing crews caused the Nigerian Trawler Owners Association to call the fleets of its members, nearly 200 vessels, back to shore in February. That meant a work stoppage for an estimated 20,000 workers and the drying up of the bulk of the local fish market.
Although the domestic fish market accounts for just 20 percent of all the fish consumed in Nigeria, that percentage has steadily decreased over the past five years as a result of the rise in violence offshore, according to a 2007 study by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Comfort Ajayi, 50, a fish seller, works in a market in Lagos amid rows of empty tables. "These tables are usually completely full," she said. "We're only selling imported fish now. No local. It's affecting us very much."
After weeks of protests and negotiations, the Nigerian Navy assured fishing companies that their fleets would be protected. Boat owners warily sent their trawlers back out to sea. "There is no way that they can say security anywhere is 100 percent," said Rear Admiral Ishaya Ibrahim. But he said the navy was doing its best to protect the fishermen.
"We beefed up the security accordingly to guarantee them free and peaceful fishing activities," Ibrahim added.
But just days after the admiral's promise, three trawlers were attacked.
The bulky fishing trawlers are no match for the speedboats and weapons that the pirates use. The pirates who attacked the Mareena took radar and sonar equipment, radios, cellphones, the crew's money and mattresses and even their shoes and socks.
"How can we send them back out to sea when we can't guarantee their safety?" said Paul Kirubakaran, manager of Seabless, one of the larger fishing companies operating in Nigeria.
Now many fishermen are wondering if it is worth going back out to sea. "I'm scared," said Godwin, 34, a fisherman who gave only his first name. "I can't sail, I'm afraid."
"They are killing us," he said. "I've been sailing 15 years and the pirate thing got worse last year. Before if they came, if you gave them fish or money, they will leave you. Now they'll kill you. Before you go on a fishing vessel you have to think twice."
Recently, another trawler was attacked in the Delta. Pirates fired at the boat and then robbed it. No casualties were reported.