New research prepared for Oceana’s Transparent Oceans Initiative has, for the first time ever, used global data to analyze the links between illegal fishing and other maritime crimes like forced labor, drug trafficking, and money laundering, found fishing-related crime is highly concentrated and sanctions are often inadequate.
The team of researchers, led by Dr. Dyhia Belhabib of Ecotrust Canada and Nautical Crime Investigation Services, reviewed the world’s largest database of reported fishing-related offenses, finding roughly half of all illegal fishing incidents involved fishing without a permit, mostly committed by artisanal fishers; about one-third were other types of fishing violations like under-reporting catch; and 11% involved labor and human rights violations, almost all committed by industrial fishers.
The study, published March 23 in Science Advances, reveals at least one-third of all recorded offenses, out of 6,053 listed in the database, are associated with just 20 companies and 450 industrial fishing vessels. Five of these offenders are among the top 10 companies in the world fishing in the high seas and at least 59% of offenses come from Chinese-owned vessels.
“Small-scale fishers, who are often more visible to law enforcement due to their proximity to the coast, are disproportionately criminalized for fishing crimes while industrial fishers are frequently let off the hook,” says Dr. Belhabib.
“Punishments should fit both the crime and the perpetrator. Fines on small-scale fishers can be financially devastating compared to their meager income. Properly addressing violations of the industrial sector will not only help reduce the need for artisanal fishers to turn to illegal fishing, but also help address other crimes such as piracy.”
The researchers also found 320 incidents between 2000 and 2020 in which illegal fishing and human rights abuses co-occurred, nearly all of them onboard industrial fishing vessels. According to the study, such offenses commonly result in small fines, and any prison sentences are imposed on crews, not vessel owners.
Some reasons for the apparent lenient punishment may be that fisheries agencies do not see it as their job to police non-fishing offenses or that immigration and labor laws often do not align, leaving these international victims of human rights abuse in a major legal gap.
The study recommends that law enforcement address the full range of offenses associated with fishing vessels, not just those in the domain of the government’s fisheries agency. Other crimes that co-occurred with illegal fishing included bribery, illegal or fraudulent use of flags, waste dumping, and illegal trans-shipment.
“Illegal fishing, estimated to be about one-quarter of all fishing, can destroy marine habitats, place increased pressure on already at-risk fish populations, threaten the livelihoods of law-abiding fishers, and undermine efforts to responsibly manage and protect the ocean,” says Oceana senior director of global policy Philip Chou.
“We need stronger national and international rules that end industrial-scale illegal fishing and address fishing and related crimes together.”
Oceana, an international advocacy organization focused on ocean conservation, and the researchers recommend tougher penalties, like sanctioning beneficial owners and blacklisting vessels of the worst offenders from national registries, and adopting new policies that better incentivize behavior change, such as decriminalizing some artisanal fishing violations in favor of more cooperative approaches like gear buy-back programs and more community-inclusive management schemes.
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