Most South Africans are unaware of the work done each day by hundreds of fisheries law enforcement officers, who risk their lives fighting ruthless criminals operating in organised networks.
The criminals’ activities put at risk sustainable economic growth, undermine coastal communities’ livelihoods and threaten food security. They pose a challenge to the goal of maximising the blue economy on the African continent.
This emerged during the international symposium FishCRIME, held in Cape Town last month. The clear point was that effective fisheries law enforcement is crucial to sustainably maximising the ocean’s resources and realising a blue economy.
Fisheries officers intercept and bring to book the masterminds behind highly organised and well-financed criminal networks engaged in a range of transnational illegal activities in the fishing sector. They investigate crimes including illegal fishing, drug smuggling, money-laundering and human trafficking.
The FishCRIME symposium was a first step to conceptualising and developing a new global fisheries law-enforcement paradigm. It is not surprising that this discussion took place in SA.
SA is experiencing a surge of organised fisheries crime due to its geographical position and good port infrastructure, but it also harbours some of the world’s most dedicated and innovative fisheries law-enforcement units.
The investigation and successful prosecution in 2003 of former fishing magnate Arnold Bengis – convicted and jailed for poaching huge quantities of rock lobster and Patagonian toothfish and exporting it illegally to the US – is unparalleled globally and was initiated by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
The symposium, organised back to back with a meeting of Interpol’s fisheries crime working group, brought together more than 200 experts from 31 countries.
With nearly a third of global fisheries resources exhausted and half exploited to their limit, a vital food source is about to disappear.
Along some African coastlines, criminals are pillaging more than a third of local fisheries resources. To maximise the blue economy, the continent must urgently step up the protection of its resources.
Yet illegal fishing has been regarded as a minor problem outside Africa; a bit of cheating by naughty businesses. The response has been to advocate port and at-sea inspections and comparatively low fines. Only in severe cases do penalties include the forfeiture or blacklisting of a vessel.
These measures do not recognise that transnational criminal networks have made illegal fishing a business. The fines and blacklisting of vessels are absorbed as business costs.
These networks are deliberately engaging in fisheries crime and are exploiting the loopholes of the law of the sea and fisheries regulations to avoid being penalised.
Africa needs smarter and more co-ordinated enforcement. Stronger multi-agency co-operation and cross-border policing is needed.
SA is leading the way on the continent. Through the Port of Entry Control Centre in Cape Town, agencies are taking a multidisciplinary approach to fisheries crime and related matters.
SA has one of the most progressive marine fisheries laws – the Marine Living Resources Act – that criminalises illegal fishing. The 1998 Prevention of Organised Crime Act and general criminal law provide law-enforcement officials with tools for the successful prosecution of fisheries crime cases. These provisions have been harnessed in recent prosecutions and are in use in investigations into transnational criminal networks engaged in illegal abalone harvesting and trade. But one country cannot do this job alone. Crime crosses borders, and so must law enforcement.
How can the momentum generated by the symposium drive change? It is anticipated that SA will continue to play a leading role in pushing the fisheries law-enforcement paradigm forward.
Crucial arenas for regional and global dialogue are likely to be the African Union, the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and Interpol.
With the adoption of the new 2050 African Integrated Maritime Strategy, African leaders are poised to set the direction for a new fisheries law-enforcement paradigm with a focus on intelligence-led, multidisciplinary and cross-border policing of the oceans.
The work has already begun. Through the Interpol Fisheries Crime Working Group, SA has encouraged the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University to consider the possibility of creating an international fisheries law-enforcement academy in Port Elizabeth to support the blue economy and strengthen the fight against fisheries crime.
The academy will bring together fisheries officers from across Africa and beyond. It will boost their competency, build networks and trust, and improve law-enforcement efforts. An increasing number of African fisheries officers are active in Interpol co-ordinated operations. They are the front line protectors of our common resources.
These efforts are already paying off. During the last day of the symposium in Cape Town, Interpol announced, on behalf of a multinational operational task team in which SA plays a central role, that Sâo Tomé and Principé had made a historical ruling: it sentenced the Chilean and Spanish senior officers on board the renegade illegal fishing vessel the Thunder to prison for up to three years and a $17m fine.
This is a historic achievement, made possible by dedicated intelligence sharing and co-ordination by fisheries law-enforcement officers from Africa and the rest of the world.