“Illegal fishing crosses borders – so must law enforcement”

Illegal fishing is a crime. When crime crosses borders, so must law enforcement. Gunnar Stølsvik, head of the Norwegian national advisory group against organized IUU-fishing, argues that the UN Convention against transnational organized crime (UNTOC) provides a tool that facilitates criminal investigations on illegal fishing.

Gunnar Stølsvik. Photo: Øystein Meland.
Gunnar Stølsvik. Photo: Øystein Meland.

Some estimates suggest that illegal fishing causes annual financial losses of up to USD 23.5 billion globally. It results in a major loss of revenue and the effects on coastal states, and developing countries in particular, can be seen throughout the world.

Illegal fishing (or illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, often referred to as IUU fishing) ignores national jurisdictions and international agreements to manage marine resources. This activity is particularly damaging where governance is weak and where states fail to meet their international responsibilities. It puts pressure on fish stocks, marine wildlife and habitats; it distorts markets and undermines labour standards; it threatens food security; it fosters money laundering and creates a market for illegal fish.

Illegal fishing is a serious fisheries management problem, and this concern has also been highlighted by the United Nations General Assembly.

There is no doubt that illegal fishing is a threat to fisheries, but it is also a serious criminal problem.

The Norwegian view is that illegal fishing is a criminal activity and it was particularly encouraging when the European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Maria Damanaki, stated in a speech on 13. January 2011 that:

“…illegal fishing can only be described as one thing: Illegal fishing is a crime.”

When analyzing this criminal activity one must keep in mind that all crimes can take many different forms. Illegal fishing is no exception. It can be small scale and very local, but it can also have a more organized and transnational form.

The description of the modus-operandi of IUU-fishing in the Southern Ocean is particularly illuminating. In the report of the Ministerially-led High Seas Task Force on IUU-fishing on the high seas, illegal fishing was described the following way:

“IUU fishing is a high reward, low risk activity. For every illegal fisher that is apprehended, another one will appear. In the Southern Ocean, for example, organised syndicates play cat and mouse with authorities. The movements of patrol boats are monitored by spies and reported to the illegal fleet. Communication between vessels of the same fleet is kept to a minimum to avoid detection. If an interdiction is inevitable, older, less valuable, vessels are sacrificed to protect more valuable ones. Ownership structures involving multiple front companies are used to keep details from boat crews as well as authorities. Operational instructions for the illegal fleet are passed down through front companies with vessel masters often not knowing who their real employers are.”

The description from the High Seas Task Force fits well with the definition of transnational organized crime. IUU-operations are not “one-man-operations”. They involve a number of people involved in the financing, control and the execution of the illegal fishing operation. In addition, there is a need for a distribution network to handle the illegally caught fish and an ownership structure with the purpose to launder the proceeds.

The complexity of such operations opens up the possibilities for several different criminal offenses. Beside the fact that the catching of the fish usually is criminalized in fisheries legislations, it also involves laundering of money. In addition we know that in some countries illegal fishing goes hand in hand with corruption. The falsification of documents constitutes document fraud.

In addition, and often not so well-known, operators of IUU-vessels in some parts of the world, exploit people in order to maximize their profits. In the so-called “Camouco” case brought before the Tribunal of the Law of the Sea in 2000, France stated in the closing argument that:

“This form of fishing, often a “pirate” form of fishing, also goes hand in hand in many instances with physical and economic exploitation of the crew, which is approaching a system of slavery. On several occasions over the past three years, the French Navy has intervened to help vessels in need, vessels which were being badly maintained and badly manned by unqualified crews which were often ill, under-fed and living in hygienic conditions which were in some cases indescribable. This form of human exploitation is all the more shocking because it is a source of considerable profit, and this will in itself justify the means used by France to combat this situation within the areas under its jurisdiction.”

These examples demonstrate that illegal fishing, as a crime, does not exist in a vacuum. The success of an illegal fishing operation is often dependent on a number of other criminal activities.

How do we address this aspect of illegal fishing? Already available measures, like the EU catch documentation scheme, IUU-lists, port state measures and so on should be supplemented by more criminal intelligence-led investigations which can bring us closer to revealing who the real individuals that finance and control these operations are. Such investigations are challenging because transnational cases involves persons, companies and vessels under many different jurisdictions. It is therefore important to use tools that facilitate criminal investigations between different jurisdictions.

During the State-Party Conference of the UN Convention against transnational organized crime (UNTOC) in October last year Norway and several other countries raised concern about organized illegal fishing. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which is the guardian of the UNTOC Convention, reported in their background paper that “much work remains to be done against organized criminal groups engaged in environmental crime, in particular in terms of criminalizing such activities. To date, Governments have tended to approach this issue solely from the perspective of natural resource management and conservation. Greater attention needs to be paid to law enforcement and to linking sporadic wildlife enforcement efforts to mainstream law enforcement and criminal justice processes.”

It is important to start considering IUU-fishing in a broader criminal context. It is not only a fisheries management problem but it is also a criminal problem. And in some cases this is transnational organized crime and should be dealt with accordingly within the framework of the UNTOC convention. It is also possible to use already existing regional and international police organizations like EUROPOL and INTERPOL.

The idea behind the UNTOC convention is simple: when crime crosses borders, so must law enforcement.

Kofi Annan stated in 2004 that “…the Convention gives us a new tool to address the scourge of crime as a global problem. With enhanced international cooperation, we can have a real impact on the ability of international criminals to operate successfully…”.

The convention was adopted by the General Assembly in 2000 and to date 159 states are parties to this convention and could be described as one of the most successful international conventions in terms of number of parties. Some of the obligations of the states are to afford one another the widest measure of mutual legal assistance in investigations, prosecutions and judicial proceedings in transnational organized criminal cases.

In the fight against transnational organized illegal fishing it is important to cooperate across national boundaries. The UNTOC convention is a legal framework for cooperation in such cases. In addition, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has a physical presence in more than 60 countries. UNODC assists requesting Member States in enhancing their capacity to address environmental crime and are involved in issues like anti corruption work, information sharing, criminal investigation techniques and prosecution assistance.

But cooperation and information sharing is not only a necessity on an international level. Local and regional cooperation is important too. The Norwegian Government established therefore from 1 January 2010 an advisory group against organized IUU-fishing for the purpose of establishing a closer cooperation between various Norwegian law enforcement agencies. The project is a network of experts from the Directorate of Fisheries, Norwegian Coast Guard, Police, the Taxation Department, the Customs Department and the Norwegian Coastal Administration. This network creates a better coordinated effort against organized IUU-fishing, not only on at-sea enforcement, but also on issues like money laundering, tax evasion, customs fraud and other criminal activities associated with illegal fishing.

The Norwegian Government recognizes that organized criminal networks are involved in illegal fishing and that this is an emerging form of crime that not only has a significant impact on the environment, but also is connected to other types of transnational organized crime. Norway is committed to bring these facts to the table in future international processes on transnational organized crime and to deal with these crimes. And we hope that the European Union will give these questions their highest priority.

There is a need for more cross border activities both in the fisheries authority control activities but also when conducting criminal investigations. The key to success is cooperation on national, regional and international level.

Gunnar Stølsvik is the head of the Norwegian national advisory group against organized IUU-fishing.
Gunnar Stølsvik – Personal facts

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