The global fishing industry currently supports 45 million people, with the number increasing up to 180 million people when accounting for all the related sectors of the industry such as fish processing. The global fishing fleet exceeds an impressive 4 million vessels, of which 23,000 are registered as industrial fishing vessels while 740 are used as fish carriers.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) believes that a lack of regulations in the fishing industry and weak governance create an environment that fosters illegal activities within the industry.
According to experts from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), there are three main aspects where illegal activities infiltrate the fishing industry: kidnapping individuals for forced labor on fishing vessels and at fish processing factories, smuggling illegal immigrants and drug trafficking.
Criminal groups choose fishing vessels specifically to serve their goals because their crews are usually full of knowledgeable and experienced seamen who are able to navigate a ship to any location, because of a lack of regulations for these types of vessels that would require them to have satellite or other equipment which would allow authorities to monitor their movements or determine their current location, the difficulties in identifying the vessels’ real owners and the existence of legitimate reasons for sailing out to sea at any time and for prolonged periods of time under the pretense of fishing.
Kidnapping individuals for forced labor
Individuals are kidnapped and used for forced labor in most locations around the globe and this is characterized by cruel methods and the inhumane subsequent treatment of victims, especially if individuals realize they are being kidnapped while on a vessel far out at sea. There are known cases where disobedient victims were killed and their bodies thrown overboard. The main actors in these criminal activities are the intermediaries, recruitment agencies, senior vessel crew and companies in the fishing industry. Young men are kidnapped to work at sea, women and older men are taken and forced to work at fish processing plants while young women and adolescents are sexually exploited by the crew.
Each region has its own specific trends. In West Africa, thousands of children are kidnapped from local communities to work, primarily, in the local fishing industry on internal water bodies (Lake Volta in Ghana) and at sea (Sierra Leone and Senegal). They work day and night, are malnourished and are targets of violence. Children participate in the fishing, fix nets and bail boats during sailing. One especially harsh task for the children is during seine fishing, when they are forced to dive into the water and drive fish into the net. According to the latest information, forced child labor has started to be used in Uganda as well. There are also known cases where adults are abducted from Africa as well as South-Eastern and Eastern Asia and made to work on ships in coastal waters.
The majority of kidnappings for forced labor in the fishing industry happen in South-Eastern Asia, especially in the Greater Mekong waters. Victims are taken from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos to Thailand where most of them, including Thai victims, are then illegally smuggled into Malaysia and Indonesia. Recruiters are also active in the Philippines – the main supplier of able seamen. The abducted, without a chance to escape and becoming de facto prisoners, can spend a prolonged amount of time working at sea, after which they are sold to other vessels.
In Oceania’s fishing industry, people are kidnapped primarily for the sex trade. These waters are also home to various passing vessels, primarily from Eastern Asia, whose crew includes victims who will subsequently be forced to work out at sea or at fish processing plants in other Asian countries. Although there is ample information about kidnappings for the fishing industry in Asia, local NGOs believe that it reveals only the tip of the iceberg.
Smuggling illegal immigrants
Studies of the six most popular routes for smuggling illegal immigrants by sea (through the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, through the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, through the Caribbean Sea to the American continent, from China to the USA, from Asia to Australia and from the Comoro Islands to Mayotte) show that fishing vessels are not part of the organized criminal groups that partake in these illegal activities, and there is currently no evidence that fishers themselves organize the smuggling of immigrants. It would seem that this criminal business consists of a broad well-developed network of smugglers who use various ships for their goals, a majority of which are fishing vessels.
According to the available information, the mechanisms for illegal immigrant smuggling are best developed in Asia and, to a certain extent, on the island of Mayotte. Chinese organized criminal groups transport immigrants from China to the USA through the American island territories in the Pacific and to Mexico as well as to Australia. Overall, it is believed that the participation of fishers in the activities of these organized criminal groups carries an ad hoc character and is reduced to the role of transporters, who have a contract with the criminal groups through intermediaries and, as such, are not a constituent part of this chain.
Illegal drug trafficking
The involvement of fishing vessels, fishers and operators in drug trafficking is most often seen in cases connected to trafficking cocaine and amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) and, as it seems, is a necessary component of operations moving these drugs into North America and through West Africa into Europe. To a lesser extent, fishers are also used to transport cannabis and heroin.
Research conducted by numerous foreign experts has shown that fishing vessels involved in drug trafficking are able to solve the following issues:
- moving drugs from large ships that act as bases at sea with smaller vessels in different directions
- supplying (with fuel, provisions and other necessities) other fast-moving boats which are moving drugs
- using small vessels to transport small amounts of drugs to and from shore and transferring contraband to large ship-bases located at sea in international waters
Smugglers use fishing vessels for a number of reasons. They are fairly “economical” due to their size and design because they can be easily refitted to transport large shipments of drugs. Fishers do not arouse suspicion because their vessels are an integral and a common element in any harbor, while the criminals, using the services of corrupt port administrators, conduct their harbor operations during safe working shifts. Furthermore, a fishing vessel can easily change its name or change owners. Meanwhile, cooperation between various law enforcement services (police, coast guard, fisheries protection services) is usually forced at best and lacking at worst, “for security reasons”.
As is the case with immigrant smuggling, fishers are only used in drug trafficking operations and they are not a constituent part of the organized criminal group. While researching the situation in West and South Africa as well as in Europe, there was incoming information stating that fishers and those living in coastal areas have begun to traffic drugs to make a living as they were losing their livelihoods due to the scare fish resources.
Law enforcement agencies in countries which are active in fighting transnational organized crime in the fishing industry have received evidence that warehouses belonging to fishing companies, fish processing plants and shipping agencies are being used to store drugs and as forms of cover-up for drug trafficking. For example, it is believed that transporting frozen fish is ideal for covering up drug trafficking because it is difficult for narcotics detection canines to smell the drugs among the fish, which, additionally, needs to be de-frozen beforehand (after which it is no longer suitable for consumption). An alternative method is to use x-ray equipment to examine cargo, which is, in a lot of cases, also difficult because the cargo is located inside refrigerated containers. Fish is a high-priced commodity and if, after the control procedures, all of the fish is made unsuitable for consumption while the drug trafficking suspicions are not confirmed, the subsequent claim for damages presented to the government could be very costly.
Some operators in Morocco were laundering money received from drug trafficking and re-investing it back into the fishing infrastructure.
The following measures could prove helpful in decreasing the appeal for criminal activity within the fishing industry:
- thoroughly monitoring the sale of vessels registered under “convenient” flags to companies whose owners are unknown
- seeking for states to recognize in their national legislation illegal activities such as kidnapping, immigrant smuggling and money laundering; this legal assessment should also be expanded to the illegal activities conducted by transnational organized crime groups with respect to marine resources
- improving control and transparency within the fishing industry, improving documented accounting of the caught fish and improving cooperation with law-abiding market participants
- refusing to license operators involved in kidnapping individuals for forced labor
- aiding law enforcement services in nations which provide their flags to fishing vessels
- improving the collection of information on the movement of vessels, their histories and owners; improving international relations between law-enforcement agencies for this purpose
- creating an environment in society where illegal activities such as kidnapping children for forced labor and the annihilation of marine resources are not tolerated and are considered unacceptable
Vladimir Platov, expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.