Somali pirates are more like street thugs than displaced fisherman, says the former commander of a Canadian warship that spent two months in the Gulf of Aden protecting merchant vessels this spring.

“I’m only giving you a personal opinion here,” said Cmdr. Craig Baines during a talk at the Fraser Institute in Vancouver Thursday. “But the 40 pirates I dealt with, (it) was more like dealing with a street gang at sea.”

Baines, the former commander of the HMCS Winnipeg, spent about six weeks in the waters north of Somalia in April and May as part of a NATO anti-piracy mission.

“The situation in Somalia is not good. There are a lot of people who are having difficulty and the youth are attracted to the large amount of money.”

Pirates, about seven to a boat, use skiffs to catch the slower-moving and undefended merchant ships — 20,000 of which travel the gulf annually — and board them with ladders or grappling ropes.

They then use assault rifles and grenades to seize the boats, holding the crew for ransom.

When confronted, guns and ladders are thrown overboard, making the pirates almost indistinguishable from fishermen.

Baines compared the pirates, who stand to make about $20,000 each from a successful hijacking, to “drug dealers on the street corner” working for organized crime groups in Somalia.