There are huge profits to be made from illegal fishing. The vastness of the high seas and insufficient monitoring and enforcement facilities means that the chances of being caught are relatively low. But suppose, against the odds, a vessel fishing illegally is apprehended and brought into port, investigated, prosecuted and successfully convicted, all too often the resulting penalties are so low that to many illegal operators they are viewed as merely part of the operating costs. An example from an Oceana report says it all: “Penalties paid within the European community averaged between 1.0 and 2.5% of the value of IUU landings, effectively a cost of doing business rather than a deterrent.”
Illegal fishing continues largely unpunished for many reasons:
- Domestic fisheries legislation can be too complex and is often outdated. Countries may sign international treaties but then fail to pass adequate laws to implement them.
- Most fisheries offences are not treated as crimes; laws are usually designed to regulate the fishing industry rather than to deal with organised crime within it.
- Low penalties are not just a poor deterrent but indicate that fisheries crimes are considered low priority and consequently they receive less investigative effort by law enforcement agencies.
- Intelligence gathering is often hampered by a lack of transparency with respect to vessel ownership resulting from frequent vessel name changes, reflagging and complex corporate structures designed to hide the identity of the true beneficial owner.
- Communication between different agencies, such as fisheries inspectors, customs and police, even within the same port, is often inadequate or is hampered by confidentiality considerations.
- There is often poor awareness of fisheries laws among prosecutors and magistrates and they are often not well informed about the magnitude and impact of fisheries crime.
- The global nature of IUU fishing means that it is very difficult for any one country or Regional Fisheries Management Organisation to achieve a successful conviction.
There is an obvious need to improve legislation; international conventions and agreements should be ratified and reflected in national legislation. The severity of penalties should be increased and should include prison terms. In response to the growing awareness of the complexity of fishing-related crimes there are an increasing number of initiatives being taken which show what can be done, for example:
- Interagency cooperation: MATT (a multi-agency task team), was set up in 2015 in Tanzania to fight organised crime centred around blast fishing. It includes four ministries, the Intelligence Security Service and the police and now tackles all environmental crimes in the country.
- The establishment of specialist environmental courts and training of prosecutors and magistrates in South Africa, primarily to prosecute abalone poachers, resulted in conviction rates increasing from around 10% to 90% in two years.
- International co-operation: in 2013 INTERPOL set up a special unit to fight IUU fishing which has achieved several successes, including that of the Thunder, successfully prosecuted by São Tomé and Príncipe for illegal catches of toothfish. A task force of 10 countries as well as INTERPOL were involved.
- The FISH-i Africa task force, comprised of 8 countries of the Western Indian Ocean, was set up to facilitate information exchange and coordinate action against IUU fishing and has made significant improvements to the effectiveness of MCS efforts in the region.
As these examples show, cooperation is the key to success – both within countries in the form of multi-agency collaboration and on an international level.
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