Illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing is a major risk to maritime security. IUU fishing has been linked to overfishing, coastal destabilization, piracy, food insecurity, environmental degradation, labor violations, drug smuggling, and transnational criminal organizations. The U.S. government has declared that IUU fishing is one of the greatest threats to ocean health and has directed a whole-of-government approach to fight it, with maritime law enforcement agencies taking the lead.
IUU fishing is a recurring maritime crime, like drug smuggling, but it needs its own solutions. Both problems include tracking and interdicting bad actors, both problems rely on intelligence and data sharing, and both problems require coordination and cooperation with partner nations for success. There are many lessons that can and should be learned from successes in the war on drugs, but the fight against IUU fishing should not be based on a cookie-cutter approach. Fish and illegal drugs are vastly different commodities and their respective business models are quite distinct, which means IUU fishing can be thwarted in ways that would not work for drugs. It takes much, much less pressure for an illegal fishing venture to stop making money than it does for a cocaine smuggler.
One major challenge in confronting both crimes is determining what constitutes success. Most people consider counter-drug activities successful if the illegal activity stops and the bad actors face consequences. Not being able to build a court case and bring bad actors to justice is generally seen as a suboptimal outcome for counter-drug activities.
It takes much, much less pressure for an illegal fishing venture to stop making money than it does for a cocaine smuggler.Share on Twitter
Building IUU fishing court cases is notoriously tricky because of jurisdictional restrictions, limited authorities, and the complexity of sorting the legal fish from the illegal fish. Even when a court case is built and brought through the justice system, the penalties are often low. Bringing such cases can be frustrating, as they end without a conviction more often than not.
However, in some ways, dealing with fish (and not drugs) makes this fight easier. One of the most powerful tools for counter-IUU fishing activities involves taking advantage of the weaknesses that are specific to its unique business model.
All fish, fresh or frozen, legally or illegally caught, lose value as they age. Fresh fish is the ideal, old fish is significantly less appealing to the consumer—a truth that does not hold for stale cocaine. There are many legal mechanisms in place that allow law enforcement to delay the offloading of illegally caught fish, even if a conviction is infeasible. The Port State Measures Agreement is an excellent tool that allows for the port to review documents and vessel tracks (big data has allowed for the proliferation of amazing, accessible, and free counter-IUU tools), and processing paperwork takes time. Ultimately the port can refuse to allow the fish into the country. The vessel must then take more time, fuel, and additional costs to try to sell their fish at another port—and that port may appreciate a call from the partner nation alerting them to their findings about the legality of the fish.
During this time, the fish are depreciating in value. The crew is still being fed (and paid if they are legal labor, which is not always the case), fuel is being spent, and the profit from this illegal venture is decreasing as the fish get older and less marketable. If the vessel is a fishing vessel and not a transshipment vessel, all of this time delay also means less time fishing.
Fish are not drugs: the profit margins on fish aren't even close to those of drugs. It is profitable for drug smugglers to take big risks and accept time delays since their products don't depreciate and their margins are huge. Illegal fishing has much smaller margins, and therefore it takes significantly less pressure for the risks of illegal fishing to outweigh the profits.
Consumers do not want to feed their families old fish caught by people who are being human trafficked or fish stolen from food insecure countries.Share on Twitter
Fish are not drugs: ultimately, fish are food. Consumers do not want to feed their families old fish caught by people who are being human trafficked or fish stolen from food insecure countries. Public information campaigns can increase awareness and reduce corporate and consumer demand for fish caught with bad practices.
Fish are not drugs: Fish depreciate, have tighter profit margins, and have a consumer base that can impact demand. The approach of using the weak points in IUU fishing business models to decrease profitability will not solve IUU fishing worldwide—there are many cases where this approach will impact only the margins and will not address the entire problem—but it can decrease IUU fishing. Taking advantage of the tight margins of the industry can help decrease the practice of IUU fishing without investing in boats or helicopters or even bringing offenders to court. That is a win and an opportunity that should not be ignored.
Kate Anania is a senior technical analyst at RAND with expertise in coastal and fisheries management and environmental economics.
This commentary originally appeared on Homeland Security Today on February 8, 2024. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.