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Fishermen: common folk or common criminals?

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

If you've recently watched #Seaspiracy, read stories like "Murder at Sea" or followed the saga of the (now banned from commercial fishing) Codfather, then you may understand why I chose this title. While it's vital that stories of fish-related crime gain traction and that authorities take appropriate action, people are increasingly discussing the "fishing industry" as a ubiquitous gang out on the sea, pillaging the ocean, exploiting slave labour, and maybe even trafficking drugs, arms or people. But just how accurate is this narrative?

Putting things in context

To start, what is this nefarious "fishing industry" anyways? The FAO estimates that there are more than 4,500,000 fishing vessels and there are nearly 40-50,000,000 people directly involved in commercial marine fisheries (Teh & Sumaila 2011, FAO 2018). Most of them are small scale. Nearly 1,800 species are fished. The point here is to stop using the term "fishing industry". While fishing produces animal protein, it's structure is best compared to the "fruit industry" or the "vegetable industry" (whatever that would mean) as opposed to the meat or dairy industries which are easier to generalize (in the West) due to their focus on a handful of species controlled by a handful of companies.

What many people have in mind when thinking of the "fishing industry" are large industrial fishing vessels. These vessels are massive in size, they employ far fewer people per ton of fish caught and they tend to have higher rates of bycatch. But that's not always the case and with good management and enforcement (like mandatory onboard observers), their behavior can be well policed. The real segment of this industry that people are conjuring when they imagine the evil "fishing industry" is the high seas fishing industry dominated primarily by fleets from East Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Spain) and a handful of other states. But even here, I feel it's worth mentioning that only about 3,300 vessels are responsible for nearly all of high seas fishing. A minuscule percentage of fishermen are involved in the majority of fishing where serious crime tends to occur.

Is IUU really a gateway crime?

Within the fisheries sector (the right term!), crime is definitely happening. Generally, it's characterized as IUU (illegal, unreported, and unregulated) fishing. And the amount of IUU fishing is truly mind-blowing. In the Philippines for example, experts estimated that as much as 40% of their entire catch originated from IUU fishing. The economic consequences are in the billions and the environmental consequences are untold.

At its simplest, governance and enforcement are largely to blame for the problem's persistence. Bad actors do exceedingly well in environments with pervasive corruption and little to no enforcement. But even this isn't as simple as it seems. Some of those engaged in IUU fishing are among the poorest of the poor, desperately trying to eke out a living. Other times, IUU perpetrators may actually be indigenous or local fishers that had no part in the creation of marine preserves or no-fishing zones that took away their livelihood in a process known as "bluegrabbing". IUU is a "wicked" problem on which people have worked for decades, so I won't go into much more detail here.

What's new, is that in scientific, governmental, and popular discourse, IUU is increasingly referred to as a "transnational crime" perhaps perpetrated by criminal gangs, "frequently" involving drug trafficking and money laundering among other illicit activities like people and arms trafficking. In light of these shocking claims (along with the heart-wrenching scenes from Seaspiracy), millions of people are probably wondering how much of their favorite seafood was caught by forced-labour and shared freezer space with cocaine under the whip of a gun-running fishing captain. Unfortunately, it's difficult to find numbers. It might just be because the prevalence of these "associated" activities is highly overstated.

What we do know

Reports by governmental organizations like the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, Interpol and even a full special issue in Marine Policy dedicated to the subject, provide almost no empirical support for the theory of "frequent" associated crime. The case studies they elaborate are typically linked to very high value fisheries like the illegal trade for totoaba swim bladders or South African abalone. Both of which have more in common with the ivory trade than your fish and chips.

Still, other instances are associated with money laundering (like the aforementioned Codfather) & even corruption at the highest level of government. But, by and large, this has fairly little to do with actual fishers and is mainly another example of politicians and financiers fleecing common folk for financial gain.

A very recent study from late last year actually tried to glean something on these alleged associations using an empirical approach based on 330 media reports on illegal fishing from 21 countries from the Asia-Pacific region (which represents at least half of the world's fishing). They found no significant evidence (less than 2%) of additional crimes associated with illegal fishing. Those that were found tended to be forced labor and other human rights abuses.

Recent literature has argued that fisheries are heavily linked to drug trafficking, whereas the link seems to be based on the use of fishing vessels as disguises as opposed to boats and crews that are actively fishing. The difference may seem subtle but we argue that links between organized crime and illegal fishing should be made with caution to protect those at risk. (Mackay et al. 2020)

By now, you're probably thinking "okay, but crime is crime, what difference does it make". Well, as the authors of the paper point out, focusing on the wrong crime, leads us to the wrong solutions. That paper and another one from 2018 have found that human rights abuses in fisheries typically stem from a clear set of economic drivers. It is significantly correlated with the amount of illegal fishing (because everyone is trying to make the most of less and less fish), distance from home-waters (high seas fishing or fishing in another country's waters), and the amount of subsidies provided.

Solving the unsolvable

By now I hope you realize that criminalizing fishermen carte-blanche, both figuratively and literally, will likely get us nowhere. As bad as individual examples of fishing-related crime are, presenting them as representative of a diverse profession serves no purpose and obfuscates potential solutions. Castigating an entire sector by encouraging people to stop consuming all fish (even problem plagued fish like tuna!) could be a foolhardy proposition where everybody loses.

The uncomfortable reality for supporters of the no-fish solution is that Western retailer-driven demand (motivated by consumer concern) has played a critical role in improving many global fish stocks where governments have failed. Even in the troubled case of industrial tuna, one study published this February has shown a correlation between a 57-fold increase in the number of fisheries trying to get certified and a 14-fold increase in the adoption of improved stock management strategies. But let's not forget the small-scale beacons of hope like one-by-one tuna fisheries in the Maldives that have received the rigorous Fair Trade certification. Good actors should be rewarded and bad actors should be punished using effective and responsive management measures and strong enforcement AND by wise-consumer choices.

What else can be done? Well, the evidence suggest these three things would be most consequential for fish stocks AND deliver benefits for the average fisher:

  1. End all harmful fishing subsidies. I said this in my last post, but we all must shout it directly in the faces of our politicians. Our tax dollars are being given to fisheries that destroy the ocean and ironically leave us with less fish. Read more here.

  2. Invest significant amounts of money in monitoring and enforcement. When Indonesia cracked down hard on IUU (by literally blowing up boats) they saw a 25% decrease in fishing effort all without having to impose harsh reductions on the legal industry. Getting this right will require new technologies (such as drones, satellites, etc.) and significant up-skilling of fisheries enforcement officials globally.

  3. Close all or most of the high seas to fishing. This is a radical and rational idea supported by some of the world's foremost fisheries experts. As I explained earlier, the reality is that IUU and other illegal activities proliferate where no enforcement occurs. Realistically, we aren't able to effectively police the high seas and too few actors are able to benefit from it (and they're mostly able to thanks to subsidies).

  4. Ensure that ocean management occurs in alignment with blue justice. Marine spatial planning, fisheries management regimes, and other ocean governance processes must be co-designed with key stakeholders and the most vulnerable involved from the outset.

Personally, I believe that it is indeed time, particularly for developed countries, to abandon the notion of the iconic fisherman. Such idealization and mythicizing of a profession isn't constructive and lends too much power to a group of people who are ultimately exploiting a common pool resource for profit. Nevertheless, we shouldn't allow popular perception to veer towards the other extreme where fishermen are associated with common criminals.

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