Against the Tide

  • November 21, 2014
  • by John Briley

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing takes millions of tons of fish from the ocean each year, harming the environment—and the livelihoods of legitimate fishermen around the world.

"Illegal fishing is a global problem, unrestrained by national borders, where criminals exploit the varying policies and enforcement capabilities of countries." David Higgins

"If we can shut down gateways for illegally caught fish to enter into the market, we can greatly increase the opportunity costs for those involved in illegal fishing." Tony Long

Just after dawn in the busy fishing village of Elmina, Ghana, andresidents are gathering on a bridge overlooking the town’s harbor to issue their daily fishing report. As the sun rises over low-slung roofs, the boats begin streaming in—burly, colorful canoes up to 140 feet long, each hull carved from a single tree. Locals clap as each catch-laden canoe passes below the bridge. The bigger the haul, the louder the applause.

These days, there’s not much clapping. After a full night of fishing, canoes float back to Elmina—whose 33,000 residents are bunched along a sweeping coastline about 100 miles west of Ghana’s capital, Accra—bearing just a smattering of fish, a fraction of a night’s average catch from a decade ago. Elmina, among the largest of the dozens of artisanal fishing communities in Ghana, is not alone. Throughout West Africa and the rest of the developing world, coastal enclaves, whose fates are tied to the sea, are reeling because of rapidly declining fisheries. One major reason for the depletion: large-scale illegal, unreported and unregulated, or IUU, fishing by foreign vessels that roam the seas, poaching fish by the ton with little regard for the law, the commercial fishermen who obey it, or the harm they’re causing the world’s waters.

“We are supposed to be in bumper season,” says Jojo Solomon, 52, a lifelong fisherman who served as the elected Chief Fisherman of Elmina. The annual upwelling of cold water in August has historically brought swarms of herring and other pelagic fish to the surface and into waiting nets. “But the catch is low, and it has been going down every year for the past 10 years.”

As recently as the 1980s, few people in Ghana, or elsewhere, worried about the number of fish in the sea or how they were caught. But dizzying leaps in vessel size, range, and capabilities mean that large-scale fishing boats can now lawfully scour virtually every acre of the world’s oceans and transfer catch to processing vessels hundreds of miles from any shore, allowing them to fish almost without pause. That sort of industrial fishing puts ample pressure on the world’s fisheries.

But today IUU fishing, in which illicit operators exploit a patchwork regulatory and enforcement system in need of modernizing, is dramatically compounding the problem. A 2009 peer-reviewed study found that illegal and unreported fishing accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s entire annual catch from the ocean, or as much as 108,000 pounds of fish removed illegally every minute.

Gaps in fisheries monitoring, enforcement, and accountability have helped rogue vessels scoop tens of millions of dollars’ worth of Patagonian toothfish—more commonly seen on U.S. menus as Chilean sea bass—from the Southern Ocean. They have allowed an executive from a multinational seafood company to sneak lobster stolen from South African waters into the United States, where it was falsely labeled and sold to restaurants and other retailers. And they have emboldened another major international firm to forge documents in an attempt to continue fishing illegally, even after being caught netting tons of fish in a restricted area in Liberian waters.

The fishermen get away with this because there is no standardized system of vessel identification and they are not required to carry radio or satellite transponders that would allow regulators to monitor their locations. Vessel owners can easily and legally change a boat’s identity—its name, flag of registration, and radio call sign—to stay one step ahead of authorities. And crews have even been spotted painting new names on their ships while at sea when trying to elude officials.

“Illegal fishing is a global problem, unrestrained by national borders, where criminals exploit the varying policies and enforcement capabilities of countries,” says David Higgins, head of Interpol’s environmental security unit. Most often, IUU fishing happens in countries where poor coastal residents, such as those along West Africa’s coast, rely on fishing to survive. As Higgins says, “By preying upon countries that lack the resources to sufficiently patrol their own waters, criminal fishers disproportionately victimize some of the world’s neediest people.”  

That’s why Pew and the government of Norway, which has a long history as a leader in international fisheries management, helped Interpol launch Project Scale in February 2013. The project fights illegal fishing by improving coordination and information sharing among the international police organization’s 190 member countries. Pew’s involvement is part of its efforts to conserve ocean life and to help sustain fishing as an essential economic virtue. Pew’s work to end illegal fishing, which is supported by a partnership with the Lyda Hill Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, is also seeking to require that vessels have specific, traceable identification numbers, to leverage technology to better monitor fishing, and to encourage ratification of a worldwide treaty that would prevent ill-gotten catch from reaching the market. Pew also has helped establish a partnership in southeastern Africa called Fish-i, in which seven countries share information, monitoring, and enforcement resources to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in their waters.

In its first 12 months, Interpol’s Project Scale issued worldwide alerts for four vessels that authorities said had been used in high-volume illegal fishing for many years. The alerts are intended to raise awareness among port

But illegal fish are still finding their way to land, sometimes even in the United States. From 1987 to 2001, South African seafood magnate Arnold Bengis schemed to ignore quotas and smuggle rock lobster from South African waters into the United States for sale. Bengis’ firm, Hout Bay Fishing Industries, underreported catch and bribed South African inspectors, according to a 2004 indictment in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

In 2012, the court ordered Bengis and his accomplices to pay $55 million to the South African government, the largest settlement ever ordered under the Lacey Act, a 114-year-old U.S. law that prohibits the trade in illegally obtained fish, wildlife, or plants. (A judge later reduced that award to $29 million.) Despite such prominent cases, the problem continues close to home: A study this year in the journal Marine Policy found that up to 32 percent of U.S. seafood imports may have been caught illegally.

One hot spot is the Mexican border. Federal law enforcement officials say that fish poached from U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico are brought to shore in Mexico, falsely labeled as legal catch, and trucked into the United States. In 2012, a single Texas Parks and  Wildlife Department patrol boat recovered nearly 25 miles of illegal longline and more than 10 miles of gill net with 6,000 sharks, 300 red snapper, and an “uncountable number of Spanish mackerel,” authorities said—all caught illegally by Mexican fishermen. U.S. Coast Guard patrols routinely board Mexican boats fishing illegally and find thousands of pounds of fish stolen from U.S. waters.

“If we can shut down the gateways for illegally caught fish to enter into the market, we can greatly increase the opportunity costs for those involved in illegal fishing,” says Tony Long, a former British Royal Navy officer who directs Pew’s work to combat criminal fishing. “Eventually illegal fishermen will find that the cost of the crime outweighs the profits.”

On a brisk fall day in 2011 in Leines, Norway, 93 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Gunnar Album was staring at a computer screen showing fishing boats on the move half a world away. The former commercial fisherman, who established the Trygg Mat Foundation, which monitors ship activity around the globe, watched a vessel off the coast of Liberia track back and forth, the telltale pattern of trawling.

But Liberia’s waters were closed to all industrial fishing, as the government set up a monitoring, control, and surveillance system. Album knew this and, working with the Botswana-based organization Stop Illegal Fishing, alerted authorities.

The 262-foot-long purse seiner that he was watching, named Premier, is owned by Dongwon Industries, the South Korean parent company of StarKist tuna. Premier was heading for the Indian Ocean, but its run came at the same time that Fish-i—the information-sharing partnership among southeastern African countries sponsored by Pew and Stop Illegal Fishing—was beginning to operate.

When the fishing vessel arrived in Port Louis, Mauritius, in December 2012, officials there were ready. At Liberia’s request, Mauritian officers inspected the boat and found documents confirming it had fished illegally in Liberia. The inspection also revealed forged licenses and other official documents that appeared to have been altered. Mauritius shared its findings with its Fish-i partners, which all denied the Premier’s request for licenses to fish the western Indian Ocean.

Shut out of one of the world’s most fertile tuna fishing regions, Dongwon Industries agreed to pay a $1 million fine. The Premier left Mauritius—still carrying 1,100 tons of unsold tuna. In September 2013, Dongwon changed the name of the vessel to the Adria¬. No one knows what happened to the tuna.

The case of the Premier was a clear success in Fish-i’s early stages.

“Fish-i is working because the member countries are empowered to protect their own resources,” says Kristin von Kistowski, an adviser to Pew who works on the project. “They recognize that by uniting in the fight, they can mount a stronger defense against illegal fishing than any one of them could alone.”

Programs like Fish-i help individual nations police their waters. But on the high seas—those vast expanses of ocean beyond the 200-mile national waters of coastal countries—monitoring and enforcement are far harder.

No worldwide policies protect international waters; instead, regional fishery management organizations, or RFMOs, establish fishing rules on the high seas.  More than a dozen of these organizations around the world set policies, most through the lumbering process of consensus among member countries, and each keeps its own records of illegal vessels. These policies typically apply only to countries that have voluntarily joined the RFMO, which means that boats registered to nonmember countries can fish with impunity. And RFMOs don’t have police forces, making enforcement on the high seas a challenge; a 2005 report commissioned by the British government estimated that 14 to 31 percent of all illegal fishing occurs on the high seas.

Pew staff members participate in RFMO rule-setting processes to promote fair, sustainable policies, including mandatory vessel ID numbers and consistent port controls, and the work has yielded results. In November 2013, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which sets fishing policy in the Southern Ocean, became the first fishery management body to require that all fishing vessels in its waters have unique ID numbers. Since then six RFMOs and one other fishery management body have adopted the identification number requirement for large vessels and for those fishing high-value species, such as tuna and swordfish.

In addition to working with RFMOs, Pew also is collaborating with two organizations—the U.S. company SkyTruth and the UK-based Satellite Applications Catapult—to develop satellite monitoring of fishing vessels. That will allow authorities to see movement patterns to help determine whether a boat is fishing or has entered an off-limits marine reserve, giving global scale to the work of Gunnar Album and others.

Midnight on the Gulf of Guinea, three miles offshore from Elmina, and the CRF 267, a 35-foot wooden trawler, pitches in the swell. The captain and crew of five pull up a trawl net by hand. As legal commercial fishing goes, this is about as far as one can get from the robotic, industrial operations of big vessels.

Almost nothing is mechanized on the boat, save for a 190-horsepower inboard diesel motor and a naked lightbulb swaying over the deck. The men fish by sight, looking for flashes of bioluminescence in the water that signal a school of fish. There is no radio on board. To check water depth, a crewman throws a rope overboard, weighted by a rusty ball of iron, and checks markings on the line.

The night’s yield is paltry, a few dozen fish, some shrimp, and two eels. Three crew members squat on the deck as the boat lurches into position for another trawl and sort the scrawny fish to be sold at the town market. One of the fishermen, Abraham, eyes the catch and grimaces: “Not good.”

This tiny trawler and thousands of others like it in Ghana fish an area called the inshore exclusive zone, a slice of Ghana’s national waters that is off-limits to industrial trawlers.

In much of West Africa, the industrial and inshore fleets often work within sight of each other, competing for the same fish; captains of boats large or small can be tempted to ignore a boundary, and the law, in pursuit of profit. Reports abound of trawlers ramming canoes, intentionally snarling their nets and otherwise threatening and intimidating local fishermen. As soon as the large boats cross into the inshore exclusive zone, they’re fishing illegally.

“Industrial trawlers frequently cross into the IEZ to chase high-value cuttlefish and squid,” says Richster Nii Amarh Amarfio, co-convener of the Fisheries Alliance, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations in Ghana. “They will claim it’s an accident,” he says, “but it’s not.”

A key study on illegal fishing, published in 2009 in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE determined that there was more illegal fishing in this area, the eastern-central Atlantic Ocean, than anywhere else in the world. The authors concluded that in the 1980s and 1990s, more than a third of the catch from this region was taken outside the law.

The crew of the CRF 267 sees the effect of that illegal fishing every time the trawler leaves port. This night nothing more is caught. Instead crew members stare across the water, as if asking the sea itself where it is hiding the fish.

Ghana’s woes, like those of many nations grappling with persistent fisheries crimes, are partially self-induced: The United States and the European Union cited Ghana in 2013 for failing to act aggressively enough to stem rogue fishing in its waters.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service tagged Ghana for a rash of problems, from lapses in data-reporting to overfishing of numerous species, especially bigeye tuna. And the EU said that if the country does not address its concerns by January 2015, Ghana will be barred from exporting seafood to the EU until the problems are corrected.

 In many countries the problems don’t stop on the water. To reach market, all commercially caught fish—fresh, frozen, whole, or processed—must pass through a port, and illegal fishers have had little trouble finding poorly run or corrupt havens to land their ill-gotten catch.

Recognizing the need for more international cooperation to close ports to illegal fishing vessels, Pew supported efforts to draft the Port State Measures Agreement. The agreement is a U.N. treaty that could drastically reduce the profit incentive for illegal fishing.

The treaty requires that foreign-flagged fishing vessels notify a port at least 24 hours before arriving. Based on a boat’s history and documentation, officials can order an inspection and, if any illegal activity is suspected, block the vessel from offloading catch and receiving port services. Officials would also alert other countries in the region, to help prevent the vessel from landing its catch elsewhere. The port states treaty will take effect once 25 parties have ratified it. As of October 2014, 11 parties had signed the agreement: Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the European Union, Norway, Chile, Uruguay, Seychelles, Oman, Gabon, New Zealand, and Mozambique.

Many more countries will need to sign the agreement to effectively close ports around the world to illegal fishing vessels. And ending illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing will require better vessel identification, stronger monitoring of boats, and more enforcement and cooperation among nations. But without those measures, the sea and those who depend on it for their living remain in peril.

“We all need to be part of this solution,” says fisherman Jojo Solomon in Elmina. “To the big illegal trawlers, this is just another business. When all the fish are gone, they can go home and find another way to make money. For us, it will be the end of our livelihood.”