Human Activities

Somali waters support a range of activities from fishing to shipping. Small coastal fishing communities and large urban areas alike depend on coastal resources for food, transportation, goods, and global access. While each activity or resource can be managed independently, a more holistic view of the marine and coastal space illuminates areas where activities overlap, compete, or conflict. As the region’s population grows and the economy develops, activities within each maritime sector will also increase, placing greater strain on resources.

Outlining and understanding these interactions will enable the creation of appropriate management measures that incorporate stakeholder needs, and conserve the coastal space and resources within it for long-term benefit, while avoiding potential conflict. For example, violent clashes occur between foreign and domestic vessels attempting to fish in the same area and for the same species. Shipping could exacerbate these issues if vessel traffic increases and overlaps with fishing grounds to reduce fuel use or transit time, putting shipping vessels in contact with fishers.  Over time, these human activities will further impact the natural environment by removing resources, causing physical damage, or polluting the water. Comprehensive management plans that take into account the need to expand the blue economy while preserving the resources that support it will support progress towards a sustainable future for Somalis.

Domestic Fishing

For coastal communities, fishing is crucial to food and economic security, which in turn creates local stability. For Somalis, the exact contribution of fishing to local economies is not currently known, but the sector presents opportunities for growth and expansion, especially through development of the value chain and expanded market access. Long-term benefits from expansion of the fishing sector will involve careful consideration and planning in the context of the other uses of coastal resources and sustainability of the fisheries involved.   

Fishing by Somalis is nearly all small-scale and artisanal, conducted in small, open boats with outboard motors. They catch fish and invertebrates close to shore, often in sensitive habitats, using a variety of fishing methods including handlines, pole and line, gillnets, beach seines, and traps. To date, there is little information about the amount of domestic fishing in Somali waters, and this information is needed to assess the current health of the fishery and its ability to withstand ongoing or increased fishing. Data collection mechanisms are needed to understand which fisheries are most important to supporting Somali livelihoods and how they will be impacted by other uses of the marine space. With this information, fish stock assessments and management plans can be created that ensure sustainability of the resources and enable the fishing sector to provide benefits to Somalis over the long-term.

Combining sustainably managed fisheries with a robust and efficient value chain could allow Somalis to capitalize on the demand for fish in the region and internationally. Most of the catch by Somali fishers is landed on the beach then processed and sold to domestic markets. Export to international markets is hampered by a lack of infrastructure, including freezers and reliable access to energy; sanitary processing facilities that meet international standards of quality control; freezer trucks, boats, or planes that could transport the processed catch long distances; and trainings for Somalis in each of these skillsets. Improving each of these areas would enable Somalis to expand the market for their fish and receive greater value for the catch.

Foreign Fishing

Foreign fishing has the potential to either exacerbate conflict and deplete Somali resources or support long-term economic security by providing income to the country if licensed, managed, and enforced effectively. Fishers from at least 13 foreign nations fish in Somali waters. They extract three times more fish from Somali waters than domestic fishers, often competing for the same species and fishing grounds. Besides this direct conflict over resources, foreign fishing is a major source of resentment for Somali coastal communities that see foreign fishers as stealing their fish, committing violence against local fishers, and as an example of ineffective governance mechanisms that fail to protect the Somali people. However, if effectively managed in a way that preserves livelihoods, ecosystems, and fish stocks, foreign fishers present an opportunity for increased revenue from fishing licenses and sector economic growth if these vessels can eventually land and process their fish in Somali ports.

The fishery for highly migratory species in the Indian Ocean is extensive and lucrative. Vessels from countries near and far fish for tuna, billfishes, sharks, and mackerels off the Horn of Africa.  The area of most intense fishing varies according to season and type of vessel, but one area of high overall catch in the Western Indian Ocean is off the Somali coast. Currently, fishing effort is concentrated outside the Somali exclusive economic zone (EEZ) because there is no centralized licensing mechanism for these vessels to fish in Somali waters. To remedy this, the Federal Government of Somalia, the Somali Regional Member States, and the international community are working to create a cohesive licensing system for tuna fishing in their EEZ to capitalize on the potential revenue from foreign fishing.

In addition to a licensing system for Somali waters, sustainably regulating these fisheries both within and beyond the Somali EEZ is needed for lasting and reliable revenue generation. Because these fishes move across country boundaries, catch of highly migratory fishes in the Indian Ocean is managed by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), a regional fisheries management organization of which Somalia is a member. They monitor catch and assess the sustainability of each species by collecting and analyzing data provided voluntarily from fishing countries. Currently, many of the species caught by foreign vessels are being fished at unsustainable levels. These fish stocks may collapse if regulatory measures are not adhered to by fishers, harming the fishing economy of every country that depends on these fisheries and negating the Somali plan for future fishing revenue.

Fishing by foreign vessels for coastal fishes and invertebrates is primarily conducted by bottom trawlers (boats that pull nets across the ocean floor, catching everything in their path) and gillnetters (passive nets that entangle fish). These vessels are fishing for the same species as Somalis, but they are larger and more efficient than local fishers, so they are more quickly fishing down the resources that coastal communities depend on for their livelihoods. These methods require relatively shallow water. Off the Somali coast, the only areas shallow enough to be fished by these methods are very close to shore, often bringing these vessels into contact with Somali fishers, unlike the vessels fishing for highly migratory species that remain far offshore.

These vessels have persisted in Somali waters for decades by exploiting gaps in governance. Inconsistencies among the international framework, federal Somali law, and regional laws create confusion about what is considered legal fishing in Somali waters. Additionally, there is no centralized licensing system, leading to increased confusion, lost revenue, and a lack of catch regulation. Beyond the need for consistency among laws, there is a need for greater enforcement capacity to be able to apprehend vessels fishing illegally. Even where that capacity is strong, some foreign vessels often use tactics to evade law enforcement. They may change their name, flag, and identification numbers; they may not carry tracking devices and if they do, they may tamper with the broadcast information or turn them off entirely to avoid detection.

Foreign fishers in close proximity to coastal communities combined with the perceived lack of action to control them have fostered resentment among Somalis. Collaborative action to address this concern through the creation of management systems will help to alleviate these frustrations while simultaneously capitalizing on foreign fishing.


The Somali region has long depended on maritime trade as a main driver of its economy. That connection to the rest of the world was cut off during the height of piracy. In recent years though, as piracy has decreased and commerce has expanded, shipping has resurged in the region, especially benefitting the large port cities.

However, this increase in shipping traffic could also cause conflicts. Ships previously avoided transiting close to the Somali coast due to the threat of pirate attacks, but the decline in piracy has allowed ships to come closer to shore to save time and fuel going around the Horn of Africa. This is bringing shipping vessels into areas frequented by foreign and domestic fishers, which could result in accidents or violent clashes, especially when local fishers are mistaken for pirates. Shipping vessels coming close to shore can also threaten the health of the marine ecosystems by causing physical damage or polluting the water. As management plans are created for coastal areas, it will be important to consider discrete, enforceable shipping lanes that allow shipping traffic to flow in areas where they will not compete with fishers or harm natural resources.



Go To Project Badweyn Overview and Interactive Map

Data Attribution and License Information

All written content by Paige M. Roberts

Landing sites and Ports maps created by Paige M. Roberts

All photos courtesy of Jean-Pierre Larroque.

Foreign Fishing Areas – Catch (mt) of Highly Migratory Fishes data analysis by Sarah M. Glaser. Visualization by Paige M. Roberts. Data obtained from Indian Ocean Tuna Commission. “Available Datasets.” Data. Accessed December 9, 2014.

Foreign Fishing Areas – Coastal Species data analysis and visualization by Paige M. Roberts. Data for northeast coast obtained from exactEarth, Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. March 26, 2015.

Shipping Traffic Density data analysis and visualization by Brian Free. Data obtained from exactEarth, Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. 2016.


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