In early October 2017, scores of prosecutors and attorneys general from fourteen Latin American nations, five European nations, and the United States gathered in Lima, Peru. Under the title “Convention of Prosecutors and Attorneys General: Seeking Effective Mechanisms in the Fight Against Organized Crime and Corruption,” the attendees spent three days examining various forms of organized crime and articulating best practices to fight back.
In response to a formal invitation from Peru’s Attorney General, Sea Shepherd Legal led a lively discussion on Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing as organized crime. Specific topics included modus operandi, the various ways in which IUU fishing meets the common criteria associated with transnational organized crime, recent cases from Latin America (including the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 incident in Galapagos), and, most importantly, best practices for prosecutors working to counter IUU fishing.
Our basic message was simple: IUU Fishing is serious, transnational organized crime. Government authorities need to respond accordingly.
What are the defining characteristics of “organized crime”?
Does organized crime require the existence of a dedicated network of actors? Crime for profit’s sake, as opposed to crimes of opportunity or crimes of passion? Or perhaps we need a sufficiently “serious” racket (whether in terms of money or suffering) to distinguish “organized crime” from its petty brethren? Is the existence of secondary offenses (e.g., tax evasion, money laundering) a necessary part of the formula?
When most people hear the term “organized crime,” they think of mafiosos breaking knee-caps in dark alleys, drug kingpins the calling shots from the comfort of their yachts — maybe even gun-runners smuggling arms across some far-flung border. Alas, for most people, the lists ends there. The popular conversation surrounding organized crime rarely reaches environmental offenses. Yet, under any of the criteria suggested above, environmental crimes — including wildlife trafficking, illegal mining, illegal logging, and illegal fishing — are plainly the province of transnational organized crime.
As the above graphic from a recent UNEP report demonstrates, environmental crimes rival and even eclipse many of their more “traditional” counterparts in terms of lucrativeness. See C. Nellemann, The Environmental Crime Crisis – Threats to Sustainable Development from Illegal Exploitation and Trade in Wildlife and Forest Resources (UNEP 2014).
In the case of IUU fishing, these dollar amounts translate into enormous percentages of the overall trade. According to even conservative estimates, IUU fishing accounts for up to 22% of total global production. In some ports, one out of every two fish landed comes from an IUU operation.
Beyond sheer statistics, the realities of IUU fishing paint a grim picture — one of highly organized networks systematically raping the oceans, often with the use of violence, intimidation, and corruption. Captains use forced labor and torture to keep crews in line; journalists are beaten and, in at least one case, murdered for investigating stories; fishing vessels are used to smuggle drugs and to engage in human trafficking. In addition to this parade of horribles is the core harm to the oceans: millions of sharks, fish, and other marine animals taken unlawfully, and often under horrific circumstances, from the sea, every single year.
Compounding the problem, government actors have historically treated IUU fishing as a low-level offense. Only recently has the conversation pivoted, slowly, to recognize IUU fishing as a form of transnational organized crime. Sea Shepherd Legal is working to promote this paradigm shift.