Reconceptualising illegal fishing as a security issue may prove an effective solution.
Illegal fishing is increasingly recognised as an ecological catastrophe. Illegal fishing challenges individual livelihoods, the economic survival of industries, and potentially the survival of small island states. Many of these states are in Australia’s immediate maritime neighbourhood. Illegal fishing is extensive. Some 26 million tons of fish are illegally caught around the world: this is more than 15 percent of global capture fisheries and valued at US$23.5 billion annually. The cost to states is also significant. In developing nations alone, illegal fishing costs between $2 and $15 billion annually. Financial estimates cannot capture the broader risk illegal fishing poses to the sustainability of species and ecosystems, nor the socio-economic implications for legitimate fishers and their livelihoods.
Many of Australia’s regional neighbours rely on fish as a significant contributor to GDP as well as for individual livelihoods. In these states, the damage posed by illegal fishing is acute. Fish stocks in the Indo-Pacific are already under threat from decades of unsustainable fishing, pollution and habitat loss, and may further decline due to climate change. Many of these states rely on the “blue economy” for potential development, which in turn rests on wealth from fisheries. In these states, illegal fishing is a security threat of extreme proportions.
Focusing on criminal security threats has important policy benefits
A focus on illegal fishing as a crime with significant security implications is important. The current approach, which focuses on protecting the natural resource of fish from illegal extraction, has not solved the problem. An effective solution to the problem requires reconceiving illegal fishing as not just as an economic and environmental resource issue but as a facilitator of broader maritime crime. This change in focus yields two immediate benefits.
First, it highlights deficiencies in the legal regime applied to illegal fishing. As we have already argued, focusing on the crime of illegal fishing reveals that much of the law that might be applied to the problem is not designed for enforcement, and highlights the considerable gaps and problems with the current approach.
Second, focusing on the criminal-security implications of illegal fishing demonstrates inconsistent enforcement efforts in Australia’s maritime regions. In turn, this undermines Australian rhetoric about a joined-up approach to the Indo-Pacific and also challenges truly effective enforcement. Fish are a moving natural resource, and so they do not observe any kind of boundary; therefore, neither do illegal fishers. And yet, Australia and its partners approach illegal fishing differently in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The Pacific Patrol Boats program and shiprider agreements that Australia has facilitated in the Pacific Ocean have not been implemented in the Indian Ocean. Australia’s maritime space is one ocean region, and the same illegal fishers operate in both oceans. For example, one illegal fishing vessel can move from the Southern Ocean to the Indian Ocean, as was the case with the illegal fishing vessel Kunlun, first intercepted near Antarctica by the New Zealand Navy and later intercepted by Australia near the Cocos Keeling Islands. If illegal fishing is understood as a more conventional security threat, then it affords the opportunity to make sure that national security is achieved by rolling out successful programs in the wider region.
Third, a focus on criminal enforcement demonstrates that novel, occasionally almost entirely left-field approaches, might be necessary to bring illegal fishing and its negative security impacts under control. Patagonian toothfish have been a major target of illegal fishing. Transnational organised criminals systematically fish these waters for large catches worth around €50 million. A crime-focused approach here reveals that a lack of effective enforcement has created vigilantism, wherein other actors enforce the law. In the Southern Ocean, the organisation Sea Shepherd has actively (and successfully) sought to stop the ‘Bandit 6’, six illegal fishing operating with impunity for more than 10 years. One of these vessels, the Kunlun, had changed names ten times since 2008 to avoid capture and was allegedly linked to a Spanish crime syndicate. Sea Shepherd’s activities ran parallel to a Spanish government and Interpol investigation that resulted in the arrest of six people, and was the first time the Spanish civil guard, Interpol and Europol cooperated together on illegal fishing. The fact that an international NGO drove this enforcement action reveals the considerable issues involved in conventional enforcement. These vessels were known violators of the law, and yet it took extralegal enforcement to spearhead a more conventional process that ultimately brought them to justice. The policing and legal processes that brought these vessels under control were conventional, but completely novel, involving new cooperation between different agencies. While the extralegal approach may not be successful in all areas (and, obviously, extralegal action is not always desirable) it does demonstrate that criminal enforcement of illegal fishing yields results, and that this enforcement may have to take new forms, involving a more aggressive approach and the cooperation of organisations that have not previously worked together.
Longer-term benefits of a security approach to illegal fishing
Illegal fishing creates many security challenges for Australia, in particular because of its links to transnational organised crime. Countering illegal fishing, however, creates opportunities for Australia to enhance its responses to this problem and other maritime security issues.
The security challenge of illegal fishing already facilitates international cooperation between Australia, its Indo-Pacific neighbours and others. Illegal fishing, like maritime piracy, is a problem of the commons involving many states and therefore requiring a collective solution. For example, Spain pursued the Kunlun, despite its geographical distance from Australia. Maritime crimes in general bring together a large number of states, as an illegal commodity originates in one state, transits through others and across oceans before arriving at the destination state. Accordingly, there is a large pool of states to draw from in countering illegal fishing in Australia’s maritime domain.
If Australia is seeking to work with new allies or cement existing relationships outside the region, countering illegal fishing provides an excellent starting point. As the experience of responding to Somali piracy demonstrates, states can effectively cooperate on maritime crime without the need to devise elaborate alliance structures, relying on existing resources already deployed given that navies are always ‘at sea’ and do not necessarily need specific deployment. Given that Australia is already operating in all areas where cooperation on illegal fishing would be necessary, adding more international cooperation would be particularly low cost.
If Australia is committed to the “Quad” partnership (Australia, India, the US, and Japan), illegal fishing presents an opportunity for cooperation. Countering illegal fishing is uncontroversial, it draws together the interests of all the players, and if successful, could reduce the attendant security challenges posed by illegal fishing. Moreover, if Australia does not take the lead regionally in controlling illegal fishing, other powers may do so. China’s enthusiasm for demonstrating its increasing maritime skill and power by controlling crime has already been demonstrated in response to Somali piracy.
Dr. Jade Lindley joined the UWA Law School in 2016 having previously worked in research within state and federal government including the Corruption and Crime Commission and the Australian Institute of Criminology. Jade periodically consults to various bodies of the United Nations and presented at the twenty-fifth session of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Vienna in 2016. Jade was awarded her PhD from the Australian National University, and was a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology.
Associate Professor Sarah Percy is a political scientist at the University of Queensland.
Erika Techera is an international and comparative environmental lawyer with particular emphasis on marine environmental law and the legal protection of cultural heritage relating to the oceans.
This article is an extract from Jade Lindley, Sarah Percy & Erika Techera’s article in Volume 72, Issue 6 of the Australian Journal of International Affairs titled ‘Illegal fishing and Australian security‘. It is republished with permission.