The captain of a boat sinking his ship a few hundred kilometres off the coast of West Africa to hide his illicit catch. Migrants transported across the Mediterranean on rusty, leaking fishing vessels. A tonne of cocaine worth €85 million found on a boat off the English coast. Indentured labourers alleged to have been murdered at sea.
This is the darker side of the global fisheries industry, where the challenges of policing the world’s oceans mean crimes can go undiscovered or unpunished. And when they are found out, the brazen flouting of laws is shocking. On 13-14 October 2016, the OECD, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) are jointly holding a conference at the OECD to encourage global co-operation to prevent such crimes and ensure that those responsible are sanctioned for what they have done.
The Thunder, a trawler that illegally fished all around the world, is perhaps the most prominent case in recent years of a boat that travelled the globe, fishing without permission and yet often still managing to sell its catches. Interpol put out a Purple Warning, reserved for only a tiny number of boats, to show the severity of The Thunder’s crimes. Its voyages only came to an end after a 10,000 nautical mile chase across the high seas by the Bob Barker, a boat belonging to the NGO Sea Shepherd. And the trip only ended when the captain decided to sink his own ship to hide evidence of what happened.
Illegal and unreported fishing alone costs the global economy up to $23 billion each year, a figure which probably underestimates the full negative impact of these activities. Governments and international organisations need to also consider the economic losses faced by legitimate fishers whose catches may dwindle, or the costs associated with the criminality surrounding illegally-caught fish. Tax revenues from fishing also fall and the appropriate licencing fees are not collected. A ship like The Thunder will have caused untold economic disruption as it travelled across the world.
The crimes committed in the fisheries sector go far beyond illegal fishing. There have been a number of documented cases of fishing vessels being used to transport migrants and to facilitate human trafficking and drug smuggling. When these boats arrive in port, the criminality continues with bribery of local officials, the evasion of tax payments and laundering of the profits.
There is growing understanding that more action needs to be taken to tackle these problems. For example, the United States has designated large marine conservation areas in efforts to discourage illegal fishing and is even expanding the use of satellites to find the lights used by illegal fishers at night to attract their fish.
But individual countries face challenges in policing their own waters, let alone taking responsibility for boats that fly their flag on the other side of the world. Fisheries authorities are not mandated to fight crime, while customs and tax authorities may not be fully aware of the scale of the evasion and fraud issues. Gaps between the competencies of these different bodies need to be filled.
This conference is recognition that countries and international organisations agree they cannot work alone. A complex web of enforcement needs to be built to end criminals’ belief that they can conduct illegal operations at sea with impunity.
The resources exist but by working together we can make sure they are better deployed. The OECD’s work focuses on fighting tax crimes and developing a sustainable economy. This complements the FAO’s work on fisheries management, governance and sustainability issues. Both these organisations’ work is re-enforced by the UNODC which fights all aspects of transnational criminal operations, including human trafficking and drug smuggling. The work of these international organisations is buttressed by agencies such as Interpol and the World Wildlife Fund, as well as regional fisheries management authorities and regional economic blocs.
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