Fisheries Crime

“World fish stocks are being rapidly depleted, and valuable species are nearing extinction. Because fish are a valuable commodity, the last decade has seen an escalation of transnational and organized criminal networks engaged in fisheries crime.”  So declares the website of a new Environmental Crime Program launched by INTERPOL and funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, and the Pew Charitable Trust Environment Group. Called “Project Scale,” the initiative is based on the premises that “fisheries crime undermines resource, conservation, threatens food security and livelihoods, destabilizes vulnerable coastal regions  and is linked to other serious crimes including money laundering, fraud, human trafficking and drug trafficking.”

Specifically, objectives are intended to raise awareness of fisheries crime and its consequences, establish National Environmental Security Task Forces to ensure institutionalized cooperation between national agencies and international partners, assess the needs of vulnerable countries, and conduct operations to suppress criminal activity, disrupt trafficking routes and ensure the enforcement of national legislation. In addition to analyzing, planning, training, and generating policy and legal recommendations to address the problem, INTERPOL will actually coordinate and conduct regional or species targeted operations in the most vulnerable regions such as the West African coast. In almost every discussion of illegal, unregulated fishing, enforcement has always seemed the insurmountable issue – the lack of police personnel, customs inspection, forensic and financial expertise, cross-border sharing of information, prosecutorial commitment, and surveillance and arrest capacity on the open ocean and in the off-loading ports and harbors to manage and combat illegal activity that is demonstrably out of control.

The cost to the global economy of this unreported fishing loss has been estimated at $23 billion per year. So-called “pirate” fishermen, larger flag of convenience registered vessels, and multi-national corporate interests outside national jurisdictions are responsible for untold hidden profits, evaded taxes and uncollected duties, and other illegal activities as harvesting prohibited species, fishing out of season or without a license, fishing in conservation areas and protected national economic zones, and exceeding national and international quotas established by global management governance associations and bi- and multi-lateral treaties. 

This is an effort long overdue. In conversations with fishermen, government officials, and policy-makers, amplified by news reports and UN distress at the level of unregulated fishing worldwide, I have become convinced that the problem, as evidenced by the circumstances described, has at its core a very small group of individuals who through ownership of fishing companies, vessels, inter-locking directorates, foreign flag registration, political influence, and assuredly bribes and pay-offs as a cost of doing business are responsible for the majority of this illegal activity. I make no specific allegation here, but even the simplest investigative effort on the internet begins to reveal contracts, relationships, corporate structures, and offshore registrations, frequent ownership/management changes, corporate hiring of former regulators, and other behaviors, surely all legal in the overt appearance of things, that suggest a level of manipulation and control that aggregates the power and return from international commercial fishing to an ever-decreasing circle of players. A forensic investigation of these arrangements, at the level of legal and accounting analysis available only to an international law enforcement agency such as INTERPOL, would be a tremendous step forward in understanding how the system works and thus suggesting specific targets for further discovery, surveillance, indictment, prosecution, and trial for those responsible.

What is additionally disturbing about this challenge is the inevitable integration of these profits into the flow of international financial crimes such as money laundering, drug and human trafficking, arms sales, and terrorism. It is not just about fish as food, or preservation of endangered species; it is about the larger morality play that exposes the continuing theft of natural resources in the form water, protein, mineral, and DNA, that continues as a dark and corrosive subversion of the ocean as provider, of marine species as food, of fishing as community subsistence, of national confidence and security, and of the sustainability of what we call civilization.