Generally referred to as ‘illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing’, the practice refers to fishing in waters where no fishing is permitted, or fishing quantities, species, age or size of fish which is prohibited by national and regional laws or regulations. The practice depletes fish stocks leading to species becoming seriously threatened, and reduces biodiversity causing imbalance of species and adversely affecting ecosystems.
By far one of the most neglected areas of environmental crime, illegal fishing is also probably one of the most extensive in geographical terms. Estimates put the value of the global illegal fishing industry at US$23 billion – around 20% of the value of world fish exports. The depletion of certain species due to unregulated overfishing in turn affects the numbers of species they consume, unbalancing oceanic ecosystems. Such imbalance and depletion may lead to a reduction of human food sources due to lack of abundance of fish, as 75% of all fish production is for direct human consumption. Approximately 50% of fish exports are sourced from developing countries, which are most at risk from illegal fishing. The exploitation of such resources from developing countries has impact on those countries economic stability and development.
The modus operandi of transnational and organized offenders is many and varied. Use of multiple fishing vessels, altering the identification of ships and transfer of catches prior to an apparently legitimate landing are just a few methods used to frustrate monitoring and investigation of suspicious activity even if it is detected.
One of the most significant challenges to addressing illegal fishing is the issue of international waters. Responsibility is one factor, while jurisdiction and legislative difficulties make it difficult to prosecute vessels operating in international waters. More importantly, for many of the countries exposed, like in West Africa, nations entirely lack a naval capacity to monitor and board vessels suspected of being involved in illegal fishing.
The fishing industry is also linked to other serious criminal activities. The United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking suggests that trafficking into long-haul fishing industry exemplify the worst cases of labor exploitation. Incidence of crews being comprised of victims of trafficking is well documented. There is evidence of widespread abuse of workers on fishing vessels, and cases of murder with the victims being disposed of by being thrown overboard. Human rights abuses and environmental crime often go hand in hand. Many vessels are also involved in human trafficking and smuggling of drugs (UNODC, 2011).