We have become almost inured to near-daily reports of shipnappings, hostage-taking and ransom demands by Somali pirates. But last week a little dispatch piqued our curiosity: French soldiers stationed off the Somali coast are now being deployed on French fishing craft. They are supposed to protect about a dozen tuna-fishing boats in the region against pirates. One cannot help wondering, though, what French fishermen are doing there in the Gulf of Aden.

The answer is that many countries’ subsidised fishing fleets have not been downscaled on a par with the catch reductions. The upshot is enormous surplus fishing capacities. So high-tech fleets from Europe, Russia, China, Japan and several other countries are depleting the oceans, including the coastal waters around Africa, with no regard for the local fishermen. Many poor African countries have sold off the rights to fish inside their 200-mile coastal zones – to the European Union, among others. The latter then pass the licences on to their fisheries at reduced rates. And then there is a whole armada of freebooters flying non-European flags.

But even if licensing fees are paid up, the money hardly ever trickles down to the local populace. Instead it often ends up lining the pockets of corrupt elites: in Somalia, the fees went straight to the warlords in some cases. A modern trawler has been known to catch more in a single day than any local fisherman in ten years. That is why the natives increasingly return to shore with empty nets. The environmental organisation Germanwatch sums up EU policy as “subsidising the creation of poverty in lieu of fighting poverty: that is the sorry outcome of a misguided fishing policy.”

Fishermen who can hardly make a living any more retrofit their vessels and hire them out to traffickers who smuggle refugees from West Africa to the Canary Islands. Illegal fishing is even said to have played a part in the emergence of piracy in Somalia: after the collapse of the Somali state, hundreds of unlicensed trawlers promptly plundered the tuna, shark and shrimp stocks off the coast. At first, the trawlers were tapped for “licensing fees”, which provided a new source of revenue for jobless fishermen, too. This successful business model was then applied to merchant vessels as well. Now Europe is left with no alternative but to send in the military to keep pirates at bay off the African shore. But it should finally start thinking about how to put an end to its own form of piracy.