Resources & Climate
Commentary

Fish Crime: What Do the Numbers Say?

in Program

Today, the Stimson Center is releasing a number of major products, including an updated version of our Secure Oceans report, a new website to help stakeholders identify technology solutions for enforcing marine protected areas and combating illegal fishing, and a sneak peek at our next major program called the Natural Security Forum. These initiatives are driven by the increased U.S. national and global security implications from what we call “Natural Security” – the intersection between environmental crime and security.

Over the next few years we will study and drive policy innovation on these issues, implementing both quantitative and qualitative research and analysis on environmental crimes relating to illegal fishing, logging, mining, and wildlife trafficking. This summer, we took a cursory view of illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing – estimated to be a multi-billion dollar industry – attempting to quantify the scope and scale of fisheries crime and determine how it not only endangers conservation and socio-economic development, but also global peace and security. The following presents our research parameters and details our initial findings and analysis.

Stimson researchers pursued four paths of data gathering:

  1. IUU fishing in connection to transnational organized crime (TOC) and other non-transnational, but serious crimes;
  2. The exploitation of the legal fishing industry by transnational crime organizations and other non-transnational, but serious criminal actors;
  3. The geostrategic implications of illegal fishing; and
  4. The entry of fishermen into transnational organized crime and other non-transnational, but serious criminal activities.

The first three categories are categorized in the database as “incidents.” The fourth category has been quantified as instances where sources mention fishermen turning to illicit sources of income, including joining organized IUU fishing practices.

Preliminary findings yielded upwards of 130 incidents across the first three categories and identified five sources for the fourth category, between the months of January and August 2016.

IUU and TOC/Crime

Quantifying IUU fishing in connection to TOC and other serious crimes remains difficult. The limited enforcement capacity of many states coupled with the clandestine nature of such operations resulted in fairly few incidents. However, there were notable findings for this category. For example, in March, Spanish authorities investigated a network of companies and individuals connected to a fleet of illegal fishing vessels active in the Antarctic, finding that those accused were involved in money laundering, falsification of documents and organized crime. It is estimated that the fishing vessels brought in EUR 10 million per year in illicit proceeds. Moreover, the illicit totoaba fish swim bladder trade between Mexico and China is funding transnational organized crime groups; and in May, U.S. authorities intercepted a haul of 39kg of the swim bladders from a Mexican national attempting to smuggle the bladders across the border to eventually make its way to China.

Although hard incidents of IUU in relation to TOC has been difficult to quantify for the specified research period, anecdotal evidence abounds. Marine species such as totoaba fish, abalone, and sea cucumbers are heavily targeted by sophisticated trafficking networks. Crime syndicates are benefiting exponentially from the illicit trade of marine species, challenging other traditional funding streams such as drug and human trafficking.

Legal Fishing Industry and TOC/Crime

Transnational organized crime and other crimes in connection to the legal fishing industry accounted for twenty-four percent of incidents identified. Fishing boats are increasingly linked to trafficking operations, including the trafficking of drugs, weapons, humans and other illicit items. Research indicates that Sri Lanka is emerging as a drug transshipment hub and that fishing boats are helping facilitate these operations. In April, authorities intercepted an Iranian trawler with more than 100kg of heroin on board, making it the biggest drug interdiction in recent years. Moreover, three separate interceptions off the coast of Africa recovered nearly a ton of heroin combined between all three vessels.

Illicit trafficking routes throughout the Indian Ocean are a major concern. Including the above mentioned drug interdictions in Sri Lanka and East African states, there were three major weapons interdictions as well; two destined for Somalia and one for Yemen.

Geostrategic Implications of Illegal Fishing

It is well known that Chinese distant water fishing (DWF) fleets exacerbate tensions in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. However, Chinese DWF extends far beyond these regions to reach South America and Africa, instigating tensions across the globe. Argentina recently fired at and sank a Chinese vessel for illegally fishing in its territorial waters, and growing Chinese expansion in South American waters will likely result in more such instances. Beyond South America, officials from 24 African nations called on China to stop illegally fishing in African waters, further calling attention to the security implications of Chinese overexploitation in foreign waters.

Rising tensions among states has resulted in an increase of military assets dedicated to combating illegal fishing. Notably, Mexico launched a drone program carried out by the Navy in response to the illicit Totoaba fish bladder trade. In the South Pacific, the South Korean Coast Guard and Navy conducted drills to combat illegal fishing vessels. The Oceania Maritime Security Initiative (OMSI) has also dedicated assets to combating illegal fishing in the Pacific, leveraging Department of Defense assets transiting the region to increase the Coast Guard’s maritime domain awareness and support maritime law enforcement operations. And in Africa, President Uhuru Kenyatta set forth a new law allowing the navy to intercept illegal fishing vessels and patrol EEZ waters, citing the provision of economic security.

Entry of Fishermen into Illicit Markets

Much has been written about how emptied fishing waters outside the coast of the Horn of Africa drove fishermen into piracy. Partly because these waters represent a critical global trading lane, in response, the international community spent about $1.3 billion dollars in 2015 alone on operations to manage that serious issue.

Lack of economic alternatives coupled with depleting fish stocks encourages fishermen to turn to illicit funding streams and criminal activity. A prime example of this can be found in Ecuador. Some 300 fishermen have been detained in various countries for their involvement in drug trafficking. Other such examples can be found in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Venezuela, where fishermen are increasingly turning to criminal activity to generate income.

Looking Ahead

Our initial findings are likely only scratching the surface for the U.S. national and global security implications of fisheries crime. Under the Natural Security Forum starting this fall, Stimson will not only continue to cover fish crime, but expand to also quantify illegal logging, mining, and wildlife trafficking and their links to U.S. national and global security. The end goal is to deepen, amplify and provide a fact-based narrative that demonstrates the need and opportunities for partnership and action-oriented programming across the environmental and security divide. Stay tuned for more number crunching in the years to come.

Written by Johan Bergenas and Kaila Harris

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Johan Bergenas is a Senior Associate and Director of the Partnerships in Security and Development program. Kaila Harris is a research intern for the Partnerships in Security and Development program.

Photo credit: Kenny Louie via Flickr
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