Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the Mexican Navy teamed up to stop illegal fishermen in the Gulf of California in December 2016.

Beyond Illegal Fishing: Tracing IUU Fishing Networks to their On-Shore Beneficiaries

Guest written by Mary Utermohlen and Phil Kittock, Analysts at C4ADS

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing has emerged as a significant threat to global economic stability and security, causing an estimated USD$10–23 billion in economic losses each year. Traditional counter-IUU fishing efforts primarily involve at-sea enforcement, which often suffers from low visibility on vessel activity, limited enforcement resources, and the sheer difficulty of finding a small vessel in the vast ocean.

Illegal fishing, however, is only one part of a larger transnational supply chain that winds through processors, exporters, and intermediaries before ending up on a consumer’s dinner plate. These individuals and companies — the ones managing the movement of fish from sea to table — are the true beneficiaries of this billion-dollar industry. A more effective strategy would combine at-sea enforcement with on-shore network analysis — utilizing seizure, shipment, and other information — of the ultimate beneficiaries of IUU activity, allowing enforcement officials to target IUU networks at their core.

C4ADS, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit specializes in mapping transnational criminal networks, illustrates how the addition of an on-shore targeting approach would be effective against the illegal trade in high-value marine species. The endangered and CITES-protected totoaba, for instance, are large marine fish that have become increasingly valuable due to the expanding market for their swim bladders in East Asia. Their protected status means that, unlike most fish that have been harvested illegally, totoaba cannot be easily laundered into licit fish markets, and must therefore be transported by experienced traffickers.

High demand for totoaba has had a negative impact on the regional ecosystem as a whole; gillnet fishing for totoaba in the Upper Gulf of California has had a devastating impact on multiple marine species, including the critically endangered vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise. Three years prior to the 2011 spike in East Asian demand for totoaba, the vaquita population was 245. By 2015, it had dropped sharply to fewer than 60 individuals. The development of a vaquita refuge and the 2015 implementation of a gillnet ban seems to have had little impact on the vaquita’s downward trajectory; the most recent estimate concluded that only 30 remain. Without fast-moving and significant efforts to address the vaquita’s plight, the species is expected to be extinct within five years.

385 dried totoaba bladders seized by Mexican authorities in 2014.

Despite the difficulties inherent in at-sea enforcement efforts, patrol boats in the Gulf are currently the most pro-active impediment to the operations of totoaba trafficking networks. While thwarting illegal fishing at sea is always challenging, it is particularly hard for those charged with preventing totoaba fishermen from setting their nets. Totoaba fishermen are difficult to find; they travel in small vessels and generally fish at night. Adding to the challenge is the fact the gillnets that they set in the dark are silent and rest just below the surface of the water, preventing patrol boats from easily identifying them, even in the daylight.

While tackling totoaba smuggling at sea remains an ongoing challenge, enforcement activity farther along the supply chain seems to hold promise. C4ADS’ preliminary analysis suggests that after totoaba have successfully landed onshore, traffickers generally move the bladders through local communities before taking them north across the U.S. border. From there, traffickers export the bladders to demand markets in China and Hong Kong.

Analysis of past seizures indicates that multiple relatively small-scale networks are responsible for smuggling the bladders. For example, a March 2013 seizure at the Calexico border crossing led not only to the seizure of at least 169 individual totoaba bladders (with a value of at least $253,500), but also to the identification of at least four other individuals involved in transnational totoaba smuggling.

Targeting the few individuals responsible for directing these small networks will significantly hamper their ability to profit off the illegal fishing of totoaba in the Gulf.

C4ADS’ upcoming report on the totoaba trafficking supply chain will shed light on the operations of previously obscure totoaba smuggling networks, as well as demonstrate how network analysis could be used to target the individuals that are orchestrating the illicit trade in totoaba bladders. Dismantling these individuals’ networks from the top down, while at the same time continuing to put pressure on the source of the bladders through at-sea enforcement, would have a lasting impact on totoaba trafficking in and around the Gulf.

The views and opinions expressed on the Natural Security Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Stimson Center.