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Somali Pirates Expand to Seychelles

Tuesday, 23 February 2010 10:25 AM

VICTORIA, Seychelles — The Seychelles feels like the furthest from anywhere you have ever been: Thousands of miles of open Indian Ocean water stretch in every direction. That isolation is partly why the 115-island archipelago has become such a popular holiday destination.

More than 900 miles off the coast of East Africa, the Seychelles is known for its paradise beaches, crystal waters, coral reefs and soaring granite peaks. The islands attract honeymooners and wealthy tourists to the many five-star resorts spread across the archipelago.

Recently, however, the Seychelles has earned another reputation, one it is eager to shake off. Somali pirates are a dangerous scourge of the seas grabbing vessels and mariners for ransom. In the Seychelles the pirate gangs that motor across the ocean are holding the remote country’s future hostage.

“Piracy is a real threat to the livelihoods of the Seychelles people,” finance minister Danny Faure told GlobalPost. “Tourism and fishing are the twin pillars of our economy, both of which need safe seas.”

A retired British couple was abducted aboard their boat Lynn Rival just 60 miles off the Seychelles coast last October and are still being held captive on the Somali mainland. The incident scared both private seafarers and tourists.

Attacks on bigger yachts such as the French-flagged Le Ponant in 2008 hit demand for luxury cruises explaining the many empty berths at the new Eden Park marina built on reclaimed land in the Seychelles capital Victoria. Numerous hijackings of the fishing boats that trawl the rich Indian Ocean waters around the islands have sent the trawlers elsewhere in search of safer seas.

Somali pirates never used to reach as far as the Seychelles. But in late 2008 international navies stepped up patrols in the Gulf of Aden to protect the 22,000 ships that pass through the Suez Canal each year.

Their success had a “balloon effect.” Pirate gangs felt the squeeze and moved deeper into the Indian Ocean, ever closer to the coral and granite Seychelles archipelago. In recent months the greatest number of pirate attacks have taken place around the Seychelles.

As piracy shakes the country’s economic pillars the government is spending millions to shore them up. Last year Faure allocated an extra $2.8 million to the military and coast guard, this year it will be $3 million. “Government has had to plow resources into maritime surveillance but we are not generating.

“We have a direct threat to our fisheries and our tourism, and at the same time we need to spend the resources on being more vigilant,” he said.

The Seychelles does not have resources to spare. When piracy hit, the economy was already in a fragile state. After defaulting on debt repayments in 2008 foreign exchange controls were removed, the Seychellois rupee lost more than half its value and inflation soared to over 63 percent. Pretty much everything must be imported to the Seychelles islands so the impact on ordinary people was severe.

The Central Bank Governor was sacked, state subsidies on public transport, fuel and utilities were removed — causing prices to shoot up — and a privatization program began selling off everything from the overstaffed Seychelles Marketing Board to a peculiar array of government-owned businesses including a butcher’s shop, a ketchup factory and a chick hatchery.

Just as these shock tactics were beginning to stabilize the economy the pirates arrived, frightening away fishermen and tourists alike.

The tuna industry has been worst hit. The catch of yellowfin, skipjack and bigeye tuna from within the Seychelles 540,000 square mile exclusive economic zone has fallen by 45 percent which has a knock-on effect on port revenue, which is down 30 percent from last year, and fishing license fees, worth up to $15 million a year.

Huge French, Spanish and Seychellois flagged purse-seine trawlers still unload their catch at Port Victoria’s bustling canning factory — the biggest in the Indian Ocean — but fishery officials say that a fifth of the vessels left the tuna fleet last year because of maritime insecurity.

Those that come pay additional piracy insurance and spend money on armed French marines and private security guards who have successfully thwarted attacks since they were first permitted aboard the tuna fleet last year.

“Piracy has caused a significant loss of production,” Michel Goujon, director of French trawler owners’ association Orthongel, told an international tuna conference in the Seychelles this month [February].

“[As] piracy developed around the Seychelles so pirates were waiting for us and the crews did not feel at all safe,” he said. But Goujon added that the decision to allow armed guards on tuna trawlers meant that boats could now “resume their activities in safe conditions.”

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Tuesday, 23 February 2010 10:25 AM
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