The Cost of Crime and Corruption for Pacific Fisheries

Whitsun Reef
Chinese maritime militia vessels at Whitsun Reef, March 2021 (Image courtesy Armed Forces of the Philippines)

Published May 7, 2023 2:59 PM by The Lowy Interpreter

[By Jade Lindley]

The Pacific Ocean is the most abundant fishing region, however an uptick in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing around the islands means that might not always be true. Pacific tuna fisheries – a staple food and valuable economic source within and beyond the region – saw an estimated 192,186 tonnes, valued at $333.5 million fished illegally between 2017 and 2019, and the problem is growing. Worse, climate change further affects at least 41 per cent of already threatened marine species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the governing body for protected species.

Globally, estimates suggest that in 2020 we each consumed 20.2 kilograms of seafood. That number is expected to rise, acknowledging the health benefits, income growth, technological advancements, as well as seafood-dependent communities. Clearly, fisheries are a natural resource that requires protection from illegal activity.

Despite efforts to raise awareness of IUU fishing globally and regionally within the Pacific, and curb it, a solution remains elusive. The recent case involving alleged corruption in the mackerel fishing industry of Vanuatu highlights the need to continue conversation and limit the opportunity for illegal and unsustainable fishing practices.

Corruption within fisheries is no doubt a contributory factor in enabling private operators to exceed and undercut available fishing quotas. This also limits potential income for the state. A zero-tolerance approach to corruption among fisheries decisionmakers is central. What is alleged in the Vanuatu case is unlikely to be unique among other small island developing states, particularly those adjacent to rich fishing grounds. Indeed, corruption is an issue across the Pacific Islands region, according to Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perception Index.

There is a need to resist acceptance of a culture of corruption as the standard operating procedure, particularly within fisheries, and instead ensure transparent and sustainable contractual arrangements with private operators that benefit the government and people of today, and into the future. Tolerating corruption comes at a cost.

Fish know no sovereign boundaries and freely migrate across national and international borders. Therefore, the international role in responding to IUU fishing needs to be clarified and bolstered, rather than relying on optional recommendations which are clearly not having enough impact. Otherwise, the incentive to adopt and enforce obligations is unlikely to take hold.

Logical action for protecting species from overfishing rests with a collective, regional approach. Geographic and species-focused regional fisheries management organisations span about 90 per cent of all oceans and collaborate relating to specific fisheries stock management to ensure the long-term conservation and sustainability of these fisheries. However, greater collaboration between regional states is also relevant and necessary for monitoring and enforcement strategies aligning the specific states, particularly when fished in national borders.

A collective response directly aligns with the original intention of Article 1 of the UN Charter, while recognising state’s freedom to fish under Article 116 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. More recently, the UN sustainable development goals require IUU fishing to be addressed as a matter of urgency via goal 14, and encourages anti-corruption approaches and strengthened international collaborative responses via goal 16. The latest addition to the international legal landscape is the High Seas Treaty, agreed to in March this year, which promises to deliver greater protection over the high seas. This valuable addition will, however, take time to enter into force.

The UN Convention against Corruption has one of the highest number of parties of all international treaties, indicating global condemnation for corruption. International collaboration, particularly as it relates to corruption, is necessary in response to IUU fishing in international waters, in regions where there is an abundance of fish, corruption tolerance and limited law enforcement capacity to effectively monitor catches, and reliance on fishing to support GDP.

Regional collaboration supporting monitoring and enforcement efforts is critical, as highlighted in an AP4D report released in April 2023. Australia has an important role in strengthening collaboration across the Pacific region networks, which will no doubt impact on the Australian consumer. Advancements in monitoring technology, law enforcement training, and testing capabilities on landed catches will all limit the opportunity for IUU fishing to go unnoticed. The importance of competent and well-funded response to IUU fishing has never been greater.

Dr Jade Lindley is a criminologist based at The University of Western Australia Law School and Oceans Institute. Her research focuses on various transnational crimes and their intersection with international law. Jade is particularly interested in the criminal motivations to conduct transnational crimes, particularly in the environmental crime and maritime security space, and international responses to control these crimes.

This article appears courtesy of The Lowy Interpreter and may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.