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What’s luring pirates back into a major shipping channel?

EYL, Somalia -- Struggling to push his small fishing boat out to sea, Hassan Yasin grumbles over what he and other coastal Somalis call a threat to their way of life: harassment by illegal fishermen and attacks by large foreign trawlers.

“They will either shoot us on sight or destroy our boats,” the skinny 27-year-old said, yanking on a rope to start the engine groaning. Along the seashore are sand-filled boats that fishermen say belong to colleagues who abandoned the work because of the dangers involved.

Monday’s hijacking of an oil tanker off Somalia’s northern coast surprised the international shipping community after several years without a pirate attack on a large commercial vessel there. Naval patrols by NATO members and other countries like China had calmed the crucial global trade route that once saw hundreds of attacks.

But people in this sleepy village saw something like this coming.

Some are former pirates themselves who quit in recent years as the international pressure grew and armed guards appeared on cargo ships. They turned to fishing but now say they’re the ones being targeted at sea.

In recent years, local officials have warned that rampant fishing by foreign trawlers was destroying the livelihoods of coastal communities, stoking fears of a return of piracy as a way to make money. They have blamed Yemeni, Chinese, Indian, Iranian and Djibouti-flagged fishing boats and trawlers.

“The illegal fishing is a very serious problem. Fishing has declined, equipment was confiscated and they destroyed our livelihoods and properties,” said Aisha Ahmed, a fish dealer. The chairman of the fishermen’s association, Mohamed Saeed, said frustrations are growing. “They have no choice now but to fight,” he said.

The hijacked oil tanker was anchored Tuesday off the town of Alula, local elder Salad Nur told The Associated Press. He said young fishermen, including former pirates, had gone searching for a foreign ship to seize out of frustration.

“Foreign fishermen destroyed their livelihoods and deprived them of proper fishing,” he said.

The armed men were demanding a ransom for the ship’s release and were holding the crew captive, the European Union anti-piracy operation off Somalia said late Tuesday after making contact with the ship’s master.

Illegal fishing needs addressing, said John Steed, the director of Oceans Beyond Piracy. “It’s an aggressive business and in some cases international fleets pressure, even attack, local fisherman, which breeds resentment,” he wrote in an email.

“We have a famine and food is short. Fish is one answer,” he said, referring to the drought that Somalia recently declared a national disaster. “Fishing communities are angry and out-of-work fishermen have become - and are - pirates.”

But illegal fishing is no excuse for piracy, Steed said. He called Monday’s hijacking an “opportunity target.”

The United Nations warned in October that the situation was fragile and that Somali pirates “possess the intent and capability to resume attacks.”

Steed indicated that some in the region had let down their guard as the number of pirate attacks decreased in recent years. And in December, NATO ended its anti-piracy mission off Somalia’s waters.

Abdirizak Mohamed Ahmed, the director of the Anti-Piracy Agency in northern Somalia’s semiautonomous state of Puntland, said he wasn’t surprised by Monday’s hijacking.

In this photo taken Tuesday, March 7, 2017, a man walks in a cold storage room containing fish and other seafood for export, in the former pirate village of Eyl, in Somalia’s semiautonomous northeastern state of Puntland.  AP

Ahmed said fake fishing licenses issued to foreign fishermen and lenient enforcement of regulations by local authorities are major factors in the increase of illegal fishing.

Fishermen have reported several cases of attacks by illegal fishermen, including close-ramming of their boats by trawlers. One fisherman died and another was seriously injured after a trawler ran over a small skiff off the coast early this month, Ahmed said.

Local fishermen also have reported incidents of foreign fishermen opening fire at them or robbing them of their catches before being chased away.

“It’s matter of life and death. Now we have to fight at any cost,” Bile Hussein, a Somali pirate commander, said Tuesday, after the new hijacking was reported. He said he was in contact with the armed men on the seized oil tanker and that they had not yet decided on how much ransom to demand.

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