The transnational nature of illegal fishing

September 27th, 2010

Photo: Darrel Rhea/DesignRhea, Flickr

Some estimates suggest that illegal fishing causes an­nual financial losses of up to USD 23.5 billion. Much of this activity is carried out by large industrial fishing ves­sels which operate internationally. It results in a major loss of revenue and the effects on coastal states and the poorest 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. The effects on coastal states and their communities can be seen throughout the world. Developing countries are especially hurt, since illegal fishing deprives these communities an important pos­sibility to develop their economy. This activity exists where governance is weak and where states fail to meet their international responsibilities. It puts pressure on fish stocks, marine wildlife and habitats; distorts mar­kets and subverts labour standards; is a threat to food security; and creates a market for illegal fish. In addi­tion, the products and proceeds of illegal fishing have to be laundered into the legal market.

The Ministerially-led High Seas Task Force on IUU-fishing on the high seas wrote the following in a report in 2006:

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.

And the Australian Institute of Criminology writes in their report, “A national study of crime in the Australian fishing industry,” that:

Systematic criminal involvement in the international traffic of illegally sourced fish products is facilitated by networking between different crime groups, as and when the need arises. A wide range of criminal activities may be associated with the illegal trade, including the concealment of financial transactions and profits. These crimes include violence, corruption, fraud, and money laundering, with the transfer of the proceeds of crime across networks and national borders through such methods as transfer pricing and underground banking.

In the UN fisheries resolutions adopted in 2008 and 2009 it is expressed concerns about links between international or­ganized crime and illegal fishing, and the General Assembly encourage inter­national forums and organizations to conduct studies into the issue.

The transnational nature of illegal fishing and the in­volvement of organized criminal groups is a complicat­ing factor for law enforcement agencies trying to inves­tigate these matters. It is important not to focus solely on direct enforcement at sea in efforts to understand illegal fishing, but to use criminal intelligence led investigations as well. It is important to take a “follow the money” approach, because the proceeds of illegal fishing activities tend to end up in tax havens.

As a consequence, Norway has established an advisory group against organized IUU-fishing for the purpose of establishing a closer cooperation between various law enforcement agencies. The project is a network of professional analysts from the Directorate of Fisheries, Norwegian Coast Guard, Police, the Taxation Department, the Customs Department and the Norwegian Coastal Administration.

Gunnar Stølsvik will be making a special presentation, titled “Illegal Fishing and Tax Evasion,” this Wednesday at 9:15am at the 2010 annual Task Force on Financial Integrity & Economic Development conference in Bergen, Norway. A live-stream of the presentation will be available here

Written by Gunnar Stølsvik

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