The persistent problem of illegal fishing
Despite everything we now know about sustainable management of fisheries and the large amounts of data about fish stocks and fisheries, overfishing and crime at sea are still a problem. The underlying problem: illegal fishing. In three episodes, Christien Absil sheds light on this issue and what we can do about it. Today part 1.
Sustainable management of fisheries, we now know how to do it. With increasingly better data, the World Food Organization FAO is also getting an increasingly detailed picture of the amount of fish in the sea, and how much we could get out of it without threatening the fish stock. And yet it is not possible to grow the worldwide fish stock. In fact, more and more stocks are becoming overfished. The main culprit is illegal fishing. It is increasing worldwide.
When is fishing illegal?
The definition of illegal fishing includes 3 categories:
Illegal: Fishing and fishing-related activities conducted against national and international law, including other international obligations. Unreported: Failure to report, misreporting, or under-reporting information on fisheries and catches. Unregulated: Fishing by ‘stateless’ vessels, fishing in areas of regional management organizations (RFMOs) by vessels prohibited from fishing, fishing activities not regulated by states, fishing in areas or on fish stocks where there are no management or conservation measures.
The abbreviation for illegal fishing is therefore IUU (illegal, unreported, unregulated) in English.
Interrelationship between IUU and criminal activity
The problem of illegal fishing is not an isolated one. Illegal fishing activities are often related to criminal activities such as working with false licenses, tax crimes, money laundering or poor working conditions. Then there are criminal activities that need fishing boats and businesses. This includes drugs, human or arms trafficking and piracy.
Criminal networks also use the proceeds of illegal commercial fishing to fund other illegal activities. In addition, for criminals, fishing vessels are ideal for dealing in drugs and people, because their navigation patterns and long periods at sea make it easy for these vessels to blend into the maritime background without suspicion. The activities just don’t stand out.
The problem is only getting bigger
Where fish stocks decline, revenues fall. This, combined with higher fuel prices and a growing demand for cheap fish, is leading to declining profits in many fisheries, which in turn leads to more exploitation and abuse of crews. The bottom line is that the more difficult to catch and therefore more expensive, the more illegal fishing or slave labor becomes. In addition to these economic incentives, weak regulations and insufficient enforcement are the other major drivers behind illegal fishing.
Threat to Biodiversity
Illegal fishing is one of the most serious threats to marine sustainability and biodiversity. Together with undeclared and unregulated fishing, this costs the global economy billions of euros per year. Illegal fishing also robs the fish in front of legitimate fishermen.
In developing countries with limited resources for monitoring and enforcement, local fishermen depend on fish to survive. When cheaper illegally caught fish enters the legal trade, the legal fishermen are left behind. Declining fish stocks are also forcing local fishermen to use illegal ways to catch some fish, such as very small mesh nets or dynamite. The latter is especially problematic because you also destroy coral reefs.
IUU fishing is a problem that affects all oceans, but the consequences are most dramatic in poorer parts of the world. Indonesia even detonated illegal fishing vessels to protect its own fishermen. Only, this has not yet tackled the international criminal networks. In addition, the recruitment of Indonesian crew on IUU ships still remains a major problem.
Extent of illegal fishing
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, about 20 percent of the world’s gross catches come from IUU fishing. In coastal areas and developing countries this rises to 40 percent.
According to a recent study by the University of British Columbia (UBC), between 8 and 14 million tons of fish are illegally caught every year. Those fish are estimated to be worth $9–17 billion ($8–15 billion). The total economic loss from those illegal catches is even greater: $26 billion to $50 billion (€23–44 billion) worldwide, if you count the full economic effects. In addition, tax revenue losses are between $2 billion and $4 billion (€1.8–3.5 billion), the study estimates.
In a country like the Philippines, the total IUU catch is estimated to be 40 to 60 percent of what local and commercial fishermen legally take from the sea. Illegal fishing is a persistent problem, especially off the coast of West Africa. Illegal fishing costs states billions in lost revenue. Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Sierra Leone alone lose $2.3 billion annually to illegal fishing.
IUU fishing has replaced piracy as the biggest threat to maritime security according to the US Navy.
Trust in law enforcement undermined
Illegal fishing also erodes community trust in law enforcement, creating a sense of lawlessness and neglect. It is an environment where organized crime thrives. It can fuel local violence and other crime, especially when other livelihoods have been lost.
Interdependence with other crime
A recent Interpol investigation confirmed how fishing crime is linked to other serious crimes such as human trafficking and the smuggling of drugs and explosives. The total of 1,710 inspections of “Operation IKATERE” have uncovered more than 100 cases of fishing and other crimes. More than 40 arrest warrants have already been issued, with many investigations still ongoing. During the operation, 121 men, women and children were rescued from human trafficking on Lake Victoria in Kenya. Nearly a ton of illegal products has been seized worldwide, including protected fish and wildlife, drugs and explosives.
According to Ilana De Wild, Director of Organized and Emerging Crime at Interpol, the use of explosives as an illegal fishing method is a growing trend among unscrupulous actors in the industry. With explosives it is easy to catch a lot of fish when the fish stock is declining. “Its use also encourages the circulation of explosives that could be used by criminal or terrorist groups. It turns out that the bomb makers behind the terrorist attacks in recent years also supply explosives to illegal fishing,” said Ilana De Wild.
The lucrative shark fin trade is also often related to fishing crime, and remains a major threat to global shark populations.
Listed companies not indemnified
The general expectation is that listed companies cannot engage in illegal activities while listed on a recognized stock exchange. This has proven to be incorrect: listed companies can — consciously or unconsciously — be involved in illegal fishing activities. Financial think tank Planet Tracker found three publicly traded companies believed to be involved in IUU fishing. Because most major exchanges lack the necessary regulation against IUU fishing, investors face significant financial risks, the think tank revealed.
Fishing crime in Europe and also in the Netherlands
Fishing crime does not only occur in developing countries. The Interpol operation also showed this: in Montenegro, enforcers recovered more than 20 cylinders with explosives during the operation.
Dutch companies are also related to illegal operations. In 2017, the Liberian Coast Guard arrested a Nigerian shrimp trawler fishing in Liberian waters without a permit. The shrimp trawler is part of the largest shrimp fleet in Nigeria, that of Atlantic Shrimpers Ltd. That company markets its shrimps under the brand name Prim7Stars, of which the Dutch PrimStar BV is the exclusive distributor.
Another incident occurred a few years earlier in West Africa, this time involving a Dutch reefer: a refrigerated transport ship. The reefer had transhipped tuna from a South Korean fishing vessel suspected of illegal fishing. Moreover, the transshipment took place on the open sea, while that was only allowed in the port of Conakry.
Flags of Convenience and Reefers
The fact that you can register a boat in a country with weak rules (a so-called ‘Flag of Convenience’ also called ‘Flag of non-Compliance’) does not really help enforcement.
Reefers are an ideal way to allow illegal fishing vessels to continue their activities undetected: the fishing vessel remains on the open sea, and the reefer takes over the cargo. When such a reefer is registered in a ‘Flag of Convenience’, the ship has to adhere to fewer rules and control is limited.
There are many advantages to operating under a Flag of Convenience for illegal fishermen and reefers: registration is simple, there are no questions about the ship’s past, there is usually no tax or labor legislation. Gaps in international regulations do not make it illegal to fish on the high seas, even in a Regional Management Organization (RFMO) area. A ship can ignore management arrangements by flying the flag of a country that is not a party to an agreement. RMFO inspectors cannot board a vessel without permission from the flag state. In addition, the identity of the owners is often hidden. Vessels may change flags and names several times per season to confuse fishing authorities and avoid prosecution for IUU fishing.
This article by Medina Baykalova is the first in a triptych on IUU. The next parts will appear on January 14 and 21.