Skip to main content

Pirate attacks linked to destructive fishing

A photograph of an anti-piracy team from the Benin navy checking on a small ship during an evening patrol in the Bight of Benin, off the coast of West Africa.
An anti-piracy team from the Benin navy checking on a small ship during an evening patrol in the Bight of Benin, off the coast of West Africa. (Image credit: jason florio / Contributor via Getty Images)

Pirates attack more often in waters where illegal and destructive techniques are being used to catch fish, a new study finds. 

Destructive fishing practices carried out by industrial fleets and illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing can wreck local ecosystems and reduce the catches of small-scale fishers. As a result, fishers may turn to piracy to make money and scare such fleets away from their waters. 

“The loss of income means that they need to find something else to do,” study first author Raj Desai, a professor of international development at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., told Live Science. Fishers have skills that are very transferable to piracy, such as how to navigate and operate boats, so it’s very simple for them to become pirates, Desai said.  

And though the piracy is undeniably bad, it may have a benefit for the ecosystem if it winds up deterring illegal and destructive fishing.

Related: The most notorious pirates ever 

Modern pirates attack ships by boarding them with weapons and stealing from the crew and cargo, or by holding them for ransom, Live Science previously reported. These attacks put traders and seafarers at risk and threaten shipping routes, according to the International Chamber of Commerce's International Maritime Bureau, but the specific factors causing maritime piracy are not yet fully understood. 

To test their hypothesis that fishers may be turning to piracy in response to destructive industrial fleets, the researchers divided up the entire ocean into cells, or spaces, each with an area of about 43 square miles (111 square kilometers). Then, they compared more than 3,200 pirate attacks carried out within each cell between 2005 and 2014 with harmful and illegal fishing practices, accounting for various factors, such as the likelihood of piracy spilling over from one area to another. They described their findings Wednesday (Feb. 24) in the journal PLOS One

The researchers found more attacks in cells where industrial fleets were destroying habitat with methods such as bottom trawling, in which fishers drag a large net along the ocean floor and using chemicals and explosives to kill fish. Such practices produce a very high bycatch — animals with no commercial value that get pulled up alongside the intended catch, Desai said.

"These are very effective methods for collecting a lot of fish but [are] often killing a lot of species that are then discarded, and [that] can have pretty adverse effects on the health and sustainability of the fish stock," Desai said. Small-scale fishing economies, mainly serving local consumption, rely on healthy fish stocks and are often in remote areas off the coast of developing countries with few alternative sources of income. Piracy can provide fishers with a higher and stabler income as fish stocks dwindle.

That's why it's important to deal with the source of the problem as well as policing the piracy, Desai said. "The global efforts to fight piracy have focused excessively on interdiction and enforcement efforts and have devoted proportionately less attention to the source of the problem, which is the loss of livelihood and the vulnerability of small-scale fisheries in the developing world," Desai said.

Other factors are also at play; for example, piracy has happened more frequently in waters off the coasts of unstable countries with fragile governments. 

"This is a very interesting study suggesting that destructive and illegal fishing can increase maritime piracy through two mechanisms: one in which those affected by expected earning losses through illegal fishing turn to piracy, [and] a second one anticipating that turning to piracy could help deter such illegal fishing," Ursula Daxecker, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, told Live Science in an email.

"While the study cannot directly test these mechanisms, and presents correlations rather than causal evidence linking IUU fishing and piracy, documenting systematically how different forms of criminality occur in the same places is a valuable contribution," Daxecker said. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Patrick Pester

Patrick is a staff writer for Live Science. His background is in wildlife conservation and he has worked with endangered species around the world. Patrick holds a master’s degree in international journalism and will be working toward a second master’s degree in biodiversity, evolution and conservation in action.