A Pathway to Prosecuting High Seas Criminals
A story the public needs to read
Ian Urbina’s compelling series demonstrates the complexity of prosecuting crimes committed on the high seas. Criminals have enormous opportunities because vessels spend a considerable amount of time away from land, often beyond the reach of authorities.
And while treaties and laws provide a certain level of governance beyond the jurisdiction of national waters, their rules are often not applied. That’s largely because vessel owners fly “flags of convenience,” which means they have registered their ship in a country whose government has little interest in, or capacity for, holding them accountable.
There are also challenges when citizens of one country are on a vessel bearing the flag of a second country while fishing in the waters of a third country. As I asked in Part 1 of the series, if a crime is committed under these circumstances, “who leads such an investigation?” Who has the authority and jurisdiction? How do victims of offshore crimes get justice?
Trying to answer these questions can be complex and difficult. But following the example of commercial fishing presents an avenue to prosecuting high seas criminals, or at the very least, a penalty for breaking the rules. This can be done by using a set of complementary tools working in tandem across jurisdictions to identify suspicious activity, document the evidence, and take action once a suspected vessel ties up in port. The criminals of commercial fishing are the poachers. Illegal fishing accounts for roughly one out of every five fish taken from the seas, at a cost of up to $23.5 billion every year, according to a study in PLOS One.
The challenge with monitoring fishing vessels, just as with other types of ships, is that thousands of them are spread out over vast ocean regions. Ian points out that the world’s naval presence is diminishing; in any case, a physical presence on the water doesn’t have as great an ability to detect suspicious vessel activity as remote monitoring platforms do. But the challenge with remote monitoring is that not all governments can afford it — which is why platforms such as Project Eyes on the Seas were developed. These tools can give resource-poor regions the potential to identify illegal activity using a range of emerging technologies, from vessel location reporting to satellite imagery.
But what good is this information if there’s no enforcement vessel to catch the suspect ship in the act?
That’s where Port State Measures, an agreement adopted by the United Nations and awaiting ratification by 25 nations before becoming enforceable, comes into play. These measures would allow enforcement officers at any port to use information collected about a ship’s activities at sea to determine if the vessel warrants closer inspection. In the most serious of cases, vessels identified as fishing illegally can be denied port access and services altogether.
International cooperation, even without an official U.N. agreement, has already paid dividends in combating illegal fishing. For instance, in 2012, the Liberian government accused the fishing vessel Premier, flagged to South Korea, of illegally catching tuna in its waters. But by the time the Liberians had enough information to take action, the vessel was gone. When Liberian authorities learned that the Premier was headed for port in Mauritius, they requested that the vessel be boarded and searched, actions that uncovered documents that bolstered Liberia’s case. Ultimately the Premier’s owners settled with Liberia for $2 million.
Once the Port State Measures Agreement is ratified, the international community will have another important tool to deny access to the marketplace for illegal fishing vessels. Combined with tracking technologies and a universal standard for applying unique identifiers to all commercial ships, the increased port enforcement capabilities offered by the agreement have the potential to be a game changer in fighting not only illegal fishing but all maritime crime — because a vessel engaging in illegal fishing is often wrapped up in other nefarious business as well. The more illegal fishing vessels we can drive out of business, the more crime we can combat.
But there’s still a lot of work to be done before most victims of maritime crime get justice. The one common denominator among all the cases Ian uncovered for his series is a lack of leadership in effectively prosecuting those responsible. And that leads to one inevitable conclusion: All of the enhanced technologies and updated laws will have little effect if world leaders don’t prioritize fighting these crimes.
I’ll close with a few questions for you, Ian:
- First, the high seas are, for many people, out of sight and out of mind. How did you convince your editors that this was a story the public needed to read?
- Also, you got a lot of space to tell this story, but there’s always more to a story like this. Was there an angle or theme that you had to cut, such as the intimidation, assault, and even murder of fisheries observers from developing countries, in some of the large-scale industrial fisheries?