Special thanks to Publisher of The North Island Eagle, Kathy O’Reilly Originally printed Friday, October 5th in The North Island Eagle
As a coastal province, BC must be concerned with a form of crime that often goes unnoticed – fish crime.
Next week, on October 15th and 16th experts in fisheries crimes from across the planet will be gathering in Copenhagen, Denmark. This Fish Crime Symposium is part of an ongoing effort by international experts and high-level state representatives to address criminality in the fishing industry. This is the 4th time this growing group has met, and a lot has changed over the past four years. This gives us the opportunity to explore just how the way the world looks at criminal activity in and around the fishing industry has changed in this short period of time.
Four years ago, the term illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing was widely used to describe illicit harvesting of fish. The term was poorly understood and only referred to a very narrow and sometimes ill-defined range of activities. However, today, experts use the term ‘fish crime’ to include not just IUU fishing but a broad range of illegal activities that can be found at every stage of the fisheries supply chain.
It has been fascinating to watch how conceptions of criminality in the fishing industry have changed over the past four years. Where a short while ago we concentrated on the act of removing fish from the water, governments, agencies, academics and enforcement officers are beginning to understand that illegal activity can be found at all stages of the fisheries supply chain; including, for example, government licensing and permitting, harvesting, processing, exporting, and sales.
Before a vessel leaves port, fishing permits may be forged, environmental and safety standards and regulations ignored, and crews may be recruited through deceit and manipulation and condemned to slave-like conditions and treatment. The act of fishing, may take place in restricted areas, be conducted out of season or in excess of quotas. Fishers may employ banned or restricted gear, may discard by-catch against regulations, or simply harvest fish that they are not permitted to harvest.
But illegal activity does not stop once the fish are caught. Once fish are landed, deception may be employed to introduce them into legal markets. Papers, permits and labels may be forged, and fish may be unloaded at sea or at ‘ports of convenience’ – ports where legal oversight may be minimal. Companies engaged in fish crime need to launder their profits and cook their books to conceal their ill gotten gains. At every stage in the fisheries supply chain, bribery, corruption, and violence may be used.
Criminality may continue even beyond the point of sale; in November 2017, reports surfaced regarding conflicts of interest biasing the Dutch National Herring Test, a taste test conducted by the Algemeen Dagblad, Dutch newspaper.
All of this criminal activity and the extractive behavior that it supports have very serious harms not just to our collective environment, but to our society as a whole. Fish crime destroys marine ecosystems, threatens food security, harms legitimate fishers, damages the economy, and undermines governance. Illegal fishers threaten fish populations and steal from legitimate fishers, governments, and ultimately you and me.
In 2015, the co-author of this opinion piece (Dr. Phelps-Bondaroff) was the lead author in a report written by a small European marine conservation group The Black Fish. In it, he argued that we should consider illegal fishing as a form of transnational organized crime. At the time this argument was novel, as fisheries crimes were generally considered to be mere regulatory issues. But today, it has become the norm. So much so that the goal of the Copenhagen Fish Crime Symposium is to “advance efforts towards high level political commitment to cooperatively addressing transnational organized fisheries crime.”
The change is a little like the difference between a parking ticket and racketeering. Fish crime is generally a low-risk, high return activity, driven by greed, weak governance, poor monitoring and enforcement, overcapacity, overfishing, and diminishing fish stocks. Because it has been largely treated as a regulatory matter, fish crime has been allowed to flourish. Perpetrators are levied minimal fines, if anything and they are permitted to continue their illicit and profitable activities. For this reason, treating fish crime as a form of organized crime is vital for effectively combating this destructive practice.
Because so many of the corporations that are involved are transnational, and because the fish caught is often exported beyond the control of the local, provincial, and national government, fish crime can be seen as a form of transnational organized crime, on par with people and drug smuggling. Fish crime is a dangerous and highly organized form of transnational crime, and one associated with other illegal, violent and destructive practices.
Changing the way we look at fish crime is important to combating this destructive practice. Mere regulatory matters do not receive the necessary attention and resources. International legal instruments around transnational organized crime are considerably more robust than national or sub-national fines for fishing over a quota. While fishers using forged permits may receive a small fine, a company found to be engaging in transnational organized crime can see its assets seized, its vessels impounded, and potentially even extradition of key actors.
Those who engage in fish crime are known to launch multi-vessel fleets on lengthy voyages to all the corners of the globe, including BC. They employ sophisticated and coordinated strategies to launder money and fish, and evade taxes. Along the way they enable their activities through the violation of labour and environmental standards, corruption, bribery and violence. These same actors have been found to be involved in other criminal activities as well, including human trafficking and drug smuggling. A very recent study reported that environmental crimes, which include fish crime, are the single largest source of revenue for non-state militias and terrorist organizations.
Why should we care as British Columbians? Fish crime is not just restricted to other countries and far off shores. Our oceans are interconnected. The fish you purchase in the shop may have been touched by fish crime somewhere along its journey from the ocean to your supermarket. The sustainability of the fish populations upon which local fishers depend could be threatened by fish crime. Protecting our wild fish stocks and the jobs of our West Coast fishers depend on a sound understanding of fish crimes – both domestic and international.
Even though the way that we look at illegal activity in the fishing industry has come a long way in the past four years, more work is needed. While the term ‘fish crime’ is commonly used by experts, diplomats, and government officials, the term, as well as common knowledge of the wide range of activities it encompasses, remains rather obscure; and it is within this grey area that crime thrives. Changing the way we look at a problem can often help us combat it.
Dr. Teale Phelps-Bondaroff is an expert in fish crime and runs his own research and strategy consultancy, The Idea Tree. He is a graduate of Cambridge University and writes from his home in Sannich, Vancouver Island.
Bryce Casavant is a former BC Conservation Officer and Doctoral Candidate at Royal Roads University. He writes for the Eagle from his home on Vancouver Island.