Somalia already eats fish

Somalia knows of arid fields and poor harvests, of cattle killed by starvation due to drought, of climate crisis; It knows of hunger, of reinventing itself and also of fishing: it has the largest coastline in all of continental Africa, but even so, until recently, many Somalis had never tried fish. Now that starts to change.

During major famines, such as after the collapse of the Mohamed Siad Barre regime in 1991 or after the fierce drought of 2011, thousands of Somalis starved to death on the street, as planes left Mogadishu laden with tons of fish and shellfish from the best quality for export.

Within the country, fish was expensive, it had to be kept cold, transported quickly. Too many conditions for a society that loves meat and a country in conflict.

Even today, fish, with a very artisanal and precarious industry and a great lack of fishing infrastructures, is still probably the most underutilized resource in Somalia, despite the fact that currently almost a third of the population is starving and the most proven benefits of this animal protein in the diet.


"There is an old Somali saying about a nomad who vomited every time he found someone who lived near the sea; just thinking about anything related to eating fish made him feel fatal," says BBC journalist and analyst Mary Harper in her book "Misunderstanding Somalia ?: Faith, war and hope in a shattered state".

Fishing - and the consumption of fish - has always existed, but it has traditionally been the task of fishing clans, never as powerful as the majority of inland herders. Such was the dislike that President Siad Barre (1969-1991) went so far as to ban the consumption or purchase of red meat two days a week.

The consumption of fish in Somalia was around ten years ago - according to the latest data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) - 3 kilos per person per year, while that of red meat amounts to 21 kilos . To have more than 3,300 kilometers of coastline, Somalia consumes less fish than most Sahelian countries with no sea exit and is well below the global average of 20 kilos per person per year.

Far from explanations of an ethnic nature, many are more pragmatic: fish has always been consumed in coastal towns, while inland it did not arrive or was very expensive. Now that the kilo sells for between 3 and 5 dollars, while the goat's does not drop below 5 and the camel's at 10, the Somalis eat it. It's that simple.

Roos Haybe Abdulle, for example, had not eaten it 17 years ago, when he arrived in search of refuge in Bosaso - one of the main cities of the country located in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland (northeast) - because of the war.

He lived in the interior, on the border with Ethiopia, where because he did not arrive, due to custom or lack of means, nothing from the sea was served at the table. Now, like so many in Bosaso, fish provides him not only food, but a livelihood.


At Bosaso's main fish market, the smell is so strong that it is difficult to enter. Fishmongers head, clean and split the fish almost in the open air, among a thousand flies. And they sell it at unusually high prices for a product that usually doesn't cost more than a dollar a kilo.

Catches have dropped due to the storm and the price of tuna has tripled; the influx of buyers is relatively low.

A few meters away, directly on the beach, a man with a yellow "ma'awis" (a typical East African fabric that adjusts to the waist as a skirt) places fish directly on the sand. Around him, a dozen women with colored veils sell horse mackerels, greens, tuna or even sharks and stingrays that have just arrived in small boats.

In Bosaso there are supermarkets and fishmongers with refrigerators, but most of the fish is sold in those two points where the health conditions are conspicuous by their absence.

In some of the small local restaurants, in addition to grilled goat, soups, pasta and fresh juices, fish is also offered. Families eat it fried, breaded, accompanied by pasta, baked or in soup, usually once or twice a week, or even daily if income permits. And little by little, from these fishing spots it begins to reach other areas of the country.

"I think it is due, on the one hand, to the efforts that have been made to develop the industry; on the other, also to a diaspora that is returning and asking for different types of food: it is no longer worth the traditional mix of goat and camel "says FAO project coordinator in Somalia John Purvis.

Furthermore, Somalia's purchasing power has increased five-fold in the past four years and the economy begins to expand after decades of war. The problem remains getting the fish to stay fresh when electricity is one of the most expensive in the world: the kilowatt can be paid at a dollar an hour, ten times more than in the United States.


The new interest in this "vomiting" product has also translated into new job opportunities, not only for restaurants or new fishing companies and transport companies, but also to give women back the work that the war stole from them: the female employment rate it barely reaches 20%.

Neither Roos nor his companion Hodon Mohamud Abdulahi had ever worked, anchored to housework, their husbands and children, and the lack of resources typical of displacement; They have been stranded for years in the Girible field, on the outskirts of Bosaso, which has become a permanent settlement.

For less than a year, they have been participating in a fish drying project, promoted by the FAO, to commercialize it in areas of the country where it is not easy to get it fresh.

Roos carefully fillets a large piece of frozen tuna, while her companions chase away flies with a plastic feather duster. When finished, Hodon places the fillets in a tray on a trellised surface, with a plastic covering that works like a greenhouse that enhances drying. A group of children watch them curious, with nothing better to do.

This activity, although not very lucrative, is the only thing that Roos has left, with five small children and a husband paralyzed by a serious illness. Those who work there are, above all, women.

In Bula Eleey, another of Bosaso's displaced camps, they have gone one step further: they make pasta with fishmeal, one of the star dishes for Italian colonial heritage.

For Fartun Ahmed Hasan, 25 years old and four children, starting this task has been a very significant step. For the first time, she is going to be able to buy something with the money she gets from her job: materials to order to make furniture for her house. "A bright future awaits me," says the young woman, who wastes energy.


"Somalis have been in the fish business for a long time, but 30 years ago everything changed," explains former Puntland Chief Fisheries Officer Abdiwahid Hersi Joar. There came "collapse" and war. Somalis have a reputation as boaters and a long history of maritime trade and boat travel; Fishing emerged somewhat later, but three decades ago more fish were caught than now.

Most of the fishing is currently done on small boats with nets patched a thousand and one times and is for local consumption; lobster, tuna, shark or swordfish exports are almost symbolic. "The fisheries sector has fallen dramatically from the conflict. It is underdeveloped," says Puntland manager of the Secure Fisheries think tank, Mustafe Mohamoud.

"If you have the resources, but you do not have the means and access to the market, it is completely useless," says Mohamoud, who complains that "there is no infrastructure", although he admits that little by little the fishing communities are recovering their businesses and investing in equipment. The boats, moored in the middle of the sea without a dock to accommodate them, leave at dusk or very early in the morning, spread the nets and leave them for hours. They fish a lot in a sea famous for the migratory passage of tuna and other pelagic (surface) species.

However, quantity is not always synonymous with quality and many of the catches end up rotting on the beach. "Current trawling techniques do not discriminate against and catch a wide range of fish, whether quality or valueless, which creates a lot of waste," says Michael Sarvins, head of fisheries infrastructure and fleet renewal at FAO at Bosaso.


Furthermore, shortly after the war, piracy appeared, with a story that copied international covers and caused exorbitant spending of money. Secure Fisheries estimates that piracy in 2010 cost the global economy between $ 7 billion and $ 12 billion. The focus was on the huge foreign ships - the largest captured, a Saudi oil tanker, had an area equivalent to three soccer fields -, the juicy bailouts and the lives of international crews.

But there was no talk of the local population. Many fishermen, who quit their jobs to become pawns on pirate ships, found it costly, and those who kept their nets and hooks faced threats from pirates or were mistaken and arrested by the coastguards. UN and European Union anti-piracy programs sometimes "killed innocent fishermen," says Hersi Joar.

The pirates argued that foreign ships entered Somali waters and "stole" their fish, instead of operating 360 miles offshore where they are authorized. Piracy is a thing of the past, but illegal fishing is still there. "One consequence of the civil war in the fishing industry is that everyone is fishing in the Somali sea illegally," says Hersi Joar. Forms of controlling illegal fishing have been lost and bribes have been won to turn a blind eye to local authorities.

Mohamed Mohamed Hasan, one of the hundreds of fishermen who dives into the sea every day in Bosaso, has seen Yemeni and UAE ships crossing the imaginary 360-mile line and continuing to carry "their fish".

"There is illegal fishing here on our coasts, but we are fighting against it within our capabilities," admits Puntland's Minister of Fisheries, Abdiqani Gelle Mohamed, who assures that, despite having minimized it, it still persists "in areas where the Government does not reach". Hersi Joar goes further: there are pirates and "pirates" and those who illegally fish in one of the most productive waters in the world make up the second group. But while "the international community has addressed the fight against Somali pirates, they have not yet modified even the UN resolutions to fight against illegal fishing in Somalia and it remains very serious," he regrets.

Off the Somali coast, you can also see imposing international tuna vessels, which take, with Iran, Yemen and Spain at the top, almost three times more fish than the national ones. A business that Somalia started monetizing in 2018, when it issued the first fishing licenses in more than 20 years to 31 Chinese vessels, for a million dollars.

For Hasan or Roos, fish is the only way to earn a living. Also for hundreds of people who move in this expanding industry that tries to recover from a conflict that seems not to see its end and to compete with international ships.

In addition, for a population plagued by the climate crisis and long periods of drought, fish is, according to all experts, the best solution to alleviate food insecurity suffered by much of the country.

Irene Escudero


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