President's Letter: Fishing for a Different Ending

Carter Roberts headshot

“Why did villagers turn to piracy in the first place? The inescapable conclusion: they had no fish and their families were starving.”

Carter Roberts
President & CEO, WWF

Last winter I took my eldest son to see Captain Phillips. We left exhausted by the film’s taut drama, sat down at a local restaurant and tried to make sense of what we’d just seen. We then unexpectedly delved into the broader issues of food scarcity and the choices parents make when they’ve run out of options.

The movie opens as the titular captain begins a voyage to Mombasa, Kenya, navigating the cavernous Maersk Alabama, a ship loaded with 17,000 metric tons of cargo and carrying a 20-man crew.

The plot pivots to a destitute Somali coastal village. Fishing nets sit empty and children appear starving. Warlords appear abruptly, start shouting, and intimidate a few young men into hauling a ramshackle skiff into the surf with orders to hijack the Maersk and hold it for ransom—the equivalent of Captain Ahab setting sail to harpoon the great white whale.

My son and I discussed the groaning freight and robust crew of the sleek American ship, and the creaky, makeshift Somali vessel with welded-together ladders and a rag-tag crew. You couldn’t miss the symbolic disparity between the abundance of the United States and the abject poverty of the coastline of Somalia.

We all know how this real-life story played out. The Somali pirates boarded the Maersk Alabama. They took Captain Richard Phillips hostage—the first pirate seizure of a boat registered under the American flag in nearly two centuries. A complex military operation ensued, leaving three pirates dead, one in custody and a shaken Phillips struggling to make sense of it all once safely aboard an American ship.

The fifth anniversary of the five-day siege was marked this spring and begs the question my son asked at the end of the movie—why did villagers turn to piracy in the first place? The inescapable conclusion: they had no fish and their families were starving.

Go to many coastal areas of Africa. You’ll find fish stocks plundered by trawlers from places like Spain and China. The coastline of Somalia—the longest in all of mainland Africa—remains especially vulnerable because it is relatively unpatrolled. People have lost the foundation of their livelihood and their culture, not to mention a fundamental source of protein, health and security in their communities.

It poses a challenge: as the world’s population continues to grow, how do we help more communities secure their own natural resources and manage them sustainably, in order to avoid the conflicts that Captain Phillips lays bare?

The answer comes in stories large and small.

I have visited the shorelines of Mozambique in Coastal East Africa, where WWF has worked for a decade in partnership with CARE and local communities to restore fisheries and coral reefs and introduce new sustainable fishing and farming techniques. We’ve helped the government create Primeiras e Segundas, the largest marine protected area in Africa, and we continue to help communities manage and enforce these zones.

Fifteen years ago people here caught fish the size of their thumbs. Their children suffered from high rates of malnutrition. Now their nets bring in more, bigger fish. I have seen the dramatic results that thoughtful conservation can bring.

My own conviction is that national governments should support all efforts to stop the illegal and unregulated fishing, which lead to overexploited stocks—conditions largely credited with creating the trend of piracy in Somalia more than 20 years ago. Correspondingly, global corporations should make it their business to know how and from where their seafood supply chains are sourced—to ensure that they don’t unwittingly support illegal fishing.

And organizations like WWF, and our partners, should continue to support local leaders in conceiving and delivering smart, sustainable solutions that last.

If we do so, there is hope—hope that coastal communities in Africa and elsewhere will have a different story to tell. And hope of an ending that offers greater security for communities in coastal Africa, and all around the world.

Carter Roberts

President and CEO

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