Do You Know Where Your Fish Comes From?
Most of us are familiar with popular depictions of organized crime such as “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos.” But organized crime is an international problem, and the world’s oceans present unique opportunities. Their vastness makes it easy to hide, and large swaths of the world’s oceans are under no single country’s jurisdiction. As a result, fraud, drug trafficking, and forced labor are just a few of the ways organized crime threatens is intertwined with fisheries worldwide.
The Copenhagen Declaration, adopted in 2018 and supported by 28 countries, commits to combat organized fisheries crime to ensure the long-term sustainability of the “blue economy.” Policymakers, researchers, and the general public are learning more about the role of organized crime and its destructiveness to fisheries and communities that rely on them. Researchers in this study sought to summarize current knowledge about organized crime in the fishing industry and offer ways to address some of these problems.
The data point to the adverse impacts on economies, societies, and the environment. The modern fishing industry is globalized, industrialized, and integrated into the international financial markets. As such, it also attracts organized crime. Criminal activities can occur at any stage of the value chain, including preparatory, at sea, landing, processing, transportation, trade, and sale. And sometimes criminals use fishing as a cover for other illegal activities.
Specific examples of criminal activities in the fisheries sector include:
- Fraud – Fishing activities require a variety of documents from licenses to records of a ship’s catch. Forged vessel registrations, or “flag hopping” can confound investigations into illegal operations. Fraudulent licenses deprive communities of lawful revenue for fishing rights. Falsified landing certificates can allow illegal catch to make its way into legitimate supplies. Food hygiene can be compromised as well if vessel or the fish incorrectly identified to avoid customs duties or food safety regulations.
- Tax crime and money laundering – Fictitious vessel registration can allow a vessel’s owner to claim profits in a tax haven. This adversely affects the countries that are legally owed the revenue. Criminal networks can also use the fisheries sector to integrate the proceeds of other illegal activities.
- Corruption – Officials can use their positions to unfairly allocate fishing licenses to entities in which they have a business interest. Bribes can encourage authorities to reduce penalties for offenses, ignore illegal harvesting, or give a pass to falsified landing data.
- Drug trafficking – Fishing vessels are ideal for moving illegal drugs since their presence at sea can pass without question. They can easily enter smaller harbors or use “go fast” boats to transport drugs to and from coastal landing sites. Weapons and human cargo are also part of this illicit trade. These unlawful operations can affect the coastal communities through increases in violence and higher security costs for businesses. Gangs may co-opt local residents into their illegal schemes. If they are caught, they may face punishment while the gang members flee.
- Crime in the labor market – Forced labor and human trafficking is pervasive in the fisheries sector. Such practices also reduce costs for the vessel operators, allowing them to undercut legitimate fishing operations.
- Fisheries offenses – Many countries criminalize illegal fishing. Overfishing is a serious problem. It deprives coastal nations of billions of dollars in revenue and can also leave residents without enough fish to feed themselves. Africa alone is losing between $9.4 and $17.2 billion in economic and income losses annually. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimated, based on 2015 data, that 59.9% of the world’s fish stocks were fully fished and a third were overfished.
- Smuggling – Fishing boats provide ideal cover for smuggling otherwise legal goods from one location to another to avoid tariffs or other import or export regulations. Illegal migrants may be another frequent cargo, but this is less well documented.
- Security threats at sea – Criminal activities such as piracy, armed robbery, kidnapping for ransom, drug smuggling, arms trafficking, and illegal fishing all pose security threats. They compromise the safety of coastal communities and drive up the prices of goods. Insurance premiums are higher on legitimate shipping, and dangerous conditions can hinder vessel movements.
Controlling organized crime is critical to the development of a sustainable ocean economy. Resource extraction must be balanced with the ocean’s long-term carrying capacity. Sustainable development rests on three pillars, economic, social, and environmental. The impacts of organized crime disrupt the balance in each of these areas. To combat organized crime, policing agencies need to cooperate and share intelligence between countries. But because of the difficulties involved in catching and prosecuting these criminals, prevention should be the first line of defense. When enforcement actions do succeed, convictions should carry strong penalties that act as deterrents. And legitimate corporate interests in the fisheries sector must become more transparent about their practices.
Animal advocates can play a vital role on this emerging issue. They can create campaigns to raise awareness of organized crime in the fisheries sector along with encouraging greater corporate social responsibility by fishing companies. They can also foster efforts that strengthen community-based approaches that provide local residents with gainful alternatives to joining criminal enterprises. We must act quickly to stop the wholesale elimination of the world’s fishes.
Faunalytics’ Caryn Ginsberg has created a handy infographic to help explain the findings of this study, which you can view below (click / tap the photo for a full-resolution version).