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The Serious Impacts of Fisheries Crime


The following are Channing Mavrellis’ remarks from the Impacts panel at the 2018 FishCRIME Conference held in Copenhagen on October 15-16, 2018:

Global Financial Integrity published a report last year, titled Transnational Crime and the Developing World, which examined the values and dynamics of 11 different transnational crimes as well as their impacts on developing countries.

Three of these crimes–illegal fishing, drug trafficking, and human trafficking—occur in the fisheries sector, and thus fall under the umbrella of fisheries crime. I will be discussing their impacts today, as well as some brief final thoughts about treating illegal fishing as a serious transnational organized crime. There is no way I can cover all of the impacts of these crimes in my remarks, therefore I will be focusing on those few I find most striking.

Illegal Fishing

Illegal fishing is the most obvious fisheries crime. For illegal fishing, the lion’s share of the focus for a long time, and I believe this to be true for all environmental crimes, has been on the overt crime and its obvious impact, that is the act of fishing illegally and the depletion of global fish stocks. What are sometimes missed are the latent impacts of illegal fishing and the transnational crimes that frequently go hand in hand, even enabling, illegal fishing.

I think the delayed impact of illegal fishing is one of the most serious. Illegal fishing frequently occurs in the waters off developing countries, where the capacity, rule of law, and/or political will to monitor and enforce fishing regulations can be insufficient. Fishing is also a major industry and source of employment in most maritime developing countries.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates that approximately 60 million people are directly employed in fisheries and aquaculture, and the majority of these are in small-scale capture fishing operations in developing countries. These local artisanal and small-scale fishermen just can’t compete with industrial long-distance fishing fleets that fish illegally.

When local fishing stocks are depleted due to illegal fishing, the industrial fleets can move on—the locals are left behind to deal with the consequences. Communities as well as individuals lose a major source of food, employment, and income.

You’re a fisherman, with a boat, are skilled at sea, with little to no work (and therefore income) due to depleted stocks—where will you turn?

When legitimate economic activities disappear, individuals may opt for illicit employment; they may turn to crime—drug trafficking, smuggling, piracy, and arms trafficking to name a few that are common fisheries crimes.

What will be the tipping point for a fisherman to begin to engage in fisheries crime? What will be the tipping point for those that engage in fisheries crime for supplemental income to make it their primary income?

This is a scenario playing out across the world. And to me, this poses a huge security threat.

In Yemen, nearly half of the country’s population is under the age of 15. You are a young man facing a deteriorating economy, you have your father’s boat and are a skilled seaman, but your livelihood is threated due to illegal fishing and armed conflict—what do you turn to? Yemen is a major transit point for all types of smuggling—opiates along the southern route from Afghanistan to Africa; migrants from the Horn of Africa to the Gulf; as well as weapons into Yemen to supply combatants. There are economic opportunities if you are willing and able.

With the overthrow of the Barre government and collapse of the state in 1991, government services, including the coast guard, broke down. Industrial fishing fleets from Europe and Asia swarmed the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), fishing illegally unchecked. The depletion of fish stocks is one of the main economic drivers for the emergence of piracy in the region.

Will this same situation play out in the Gulf of Guinea due to rampant illegal fishing?

At the Illegal Wildlife Crime conference in London October 11-12, I met a man from Nigeria who works on raising awareness with the fishermen around Lagos. Due to illegal fishing, depleted stocks have driven local fishermen to turn to poaching manatees, for both parts and live animal trade.

Drug Trafficking

The same symptoms that benefit illegal fishing—poor governance, weak rule of law, insufficient capacity, and lack of political will—also benefit all other forms of transnational organized crime. Drug trafficking typically engenders high levels of violence, violence that can ultimately destabilize a country and divert resources away from development.

Africa’s role as a transit point for drug trafficking has been a major contributor to the growth of both drug production and consumption on the continent over the last decade. What will be the tipping point for fishermen facing depleted stocks to turn to drug smuggling?

Will more smugglers mean more drug flows? With increased drug flows:

Will more organized criminal groups (OCGs) convert from providing logistics and smuggling to become actual traffickers? Nigerian OCGs, following a similar trajectory to Mexican OCGs, originally provided logistical support in West Africa to South American OCGs. These groups provided cocaine as payment for the Nigerians’ services, and the Nigerian groups began to purchase cocaine themselves directly from South American OCGs, both of which allowed the Nigerian OCGs to transition from smugglers to traffickers. Drug trafficking has played a role in destabilizing certain countries in West Africa, and the increased revenues earned by OCGs from realizing a larger share of the market threaten to do even greater damage.

Will domestic consumption grow, threatening public health? East Africa, particularly Tanzania and Kenya, is an established transit point for Afghan heroin traveling via the southern route from Pakistan and Iran to European markets. Heroin was traditionally transported along air routes, but the number of maritime shipments has greatly expanded beginning around 2010, allowing larger consignments to be smuggled. The UNODC estimates that as of 2013 more than half (55 percent) of African opiate users are located in East Africa, which has the second highest rate of HIV prevalence in the world. This large increase in heroin trafficking is a worrisome development for East Africa as it presents a serious threat to public health in the region as well as the continent.

Human Trafficking

One of the most commonly associated crimes is human trafficking. The human impact is obvious – but there are other latent impacts as well.

Companies and operators that engage in illegal fishing are often also guilty of human trafficking, specifically forced labor. Because these companies pay no or substandard wages, frequently operating using debt bondage, they are able to operate at a lower cost, and thus they end up having a competitive advantage over companies that operate legally.

This advantage can crowd out legitimate actors and, more importantly, reinforce the mentality that crime does pay. By denying trafficking victims their wages, or proper wages, these companies also can have a major impact on government tax revenues and foreign remittances, which for many countries constitutes a major portion of their GDP.

Illegal Fishing: A Transnational Organized Crime

We need to make sure our discussion of fisheries crime goes further, form the obvious to the hidden or delayed impacts. For fisheries crime, the impacts discussed above are some of the reasons that illegal fishing is so serious.

Part of what makes drug trafficking a serious organized crime is the security threats that is poses. We need to recognize that illegal fishing also presents a security threat—it threatens human security, food security, natural security, economic security, and national security. Just because illegal fishing and other fisheries crimes don’t “leave bodies in the street” doesn’t mean they are any less dangerous or impactful.

As noted by a Norwegian security expert, environmental crimes are often more dangerous than “traditional” transnational organized crimes because the threshold for government corruption is low, and the risk of prosecution and punishment is much lower.

So why isn’t illegal fishing treated as a serious crime, a transnational organized crime?

Is it because it’s often a piece of paper that separates legal from illegal?

Is part of the difficulty that much of the crime is committed by “legitimate” companies, rather than clear-cut criminal organizations?

I ask, can a “company” that repeatedly engages in illegal fishing (as well as other crimes) be considered an organized criminal group?

According to the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organized Crime, an organized criminal group is

  1. a structured group of three or more persons,
  2. existing for a period of time and
  3. acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offences established in accordance with this Convention,
  4. in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit.

These fishing companies and operators clearly meet items 1, 2, and 4; if the only point of debate is whether illegal fishing is a serious crime (that is, an offense punishable by imprisonment of at least four years or a more serious penalty), I think the impacts discussed today show that it should be treated as such.

When we talk about transnational organized crime in the fisheries sector, illegal fishing cannot be left out.