For the last year, piracy in East Africa has captured the world’s attention, as evidenced by the more than a dozen countries’ warships deployed to the Gulf of Aden and the Somali basin. This includes unprecedented out-of-area naval deployments for the European Union, NATO, China, India, Japan, and South Korea. In spite of this, naval action hasn’t reduced the number of pirate attacks this year, which already exceeds 2008 levels. (See this earlier post for more on why navies fail to end piracy .)


The rise of piracy and the limits of naval power underscore that maritime challenges often begin ashore where security deficits exist. Yet, this should not lead to underlying condition paralysis when thinking about transnational challenges like piracy. As discussed during a joint maritime security workshop between the Atlantic Council and the Naval War College, the international community can generate local maritime forces through capacity building; encourage more prosecutions in Europe and the United States; support judicial systems in Kenya, the Seychelles, and Yemen; reduce the financial flows making piracy profitable; and support stabilizing efforts in Somalia.

These efforts would also have positive benefits on other pressing maritime security challenges largely neglected by the international community. The same deficit that enables piracy in the Gulf of Aden also facilitates illegal fishing in the Indian Ocean and allows criminal organizations to traffic people, drugs, and weapons throughout the world. These issues often resonate more than piracy in East Africa.

Fish provide more than 2.9 billion people with at least 15 percent of their average per capita animal protein intake. Yet, illegal, unreported, and underreported (IUU) fishing devastates fish stocks and undermines developing countries’ food supplies.  In 2007, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 62/177 deplored the fact that “illegal, unreported, and underreported [fishing] constitutes a serious threat to fish stocks and marine habitats and ecosystems, to the detriment of sustainable fisheries as well as the food  security and the economies of many states,  particularly developing states.” Losses to struggling societies have an immediate economic impact, but future fish stocks are jeopardized, too. At the current rate of over-fishing, forecasters predict that the ecological systems that support the fish population will collapse by 2045, thus negating the primary protein sources for African coastal nations.

Illegal fishing and piracy recaptured international attention in 2008, but illicit trafficking is more lucrative. Criminal groups increasingly benefit from maritime insecurity by exploiting trade routes to traffic drugs, people, and weapons. They thrive in the vastness of the oceans and relative lack of maritime domain awareness or response capabilities within the developing world. The result of illicit activity is that drug trafficking organizations generate, remove, and launder between $18 billion and $39 billion in wholesale drug proceeds annually. These groups use the profits to equip themselves with the latest weapons, which are often more advanced than their national government’s forces. For example, Colombian drug trafficking organizations increasingly use semi-submersible vehicles to evade detection. Resembling a small submarine, an estimated 60 semi-submersibles will ship over 330 metric tons of cocaine in 2009. The traffickers’ increasing sophistication has warranted a military response to detect and interdict these vessels as police forces lack the capacity to detect submarine-like vehicles.

Given the oceans’ size and the complexity of the security environment, no single country — not even a superpower — can solve these problems. Consequently, the world’s navies are coming together in unprecedented ways that can reduce suspicions and induce cooperation. As Rear Admiral Jeffrey Lemmons said at the maritime security workshop last week, “we are united by the sea.”

Derek Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.  These views are his own.