In Hot Water: Climate Change and Crime Convergence in the Fisheries Sector

Complex web: overlapping criminality in the fisheries sector stands to evolve in a number of ways as the world warms. Image: Maha / Adobe Stock

This is the third article in a three-part series on the emerging intersections between climate change and criminal and security challenges associated with fisheries, with this article focusing on evolving patterns of criminality in the sector.

The prevalence of criminal activity in the fisheries sector has long been a matter of international concern. Today, with the Food and Agriculture Organization reporting record highs in global fisheries and aquaculture production, these concerns have grown ever-more pressing. Indeed, with international trade in fisheries and aquaculture products generating $151 billion in 2020, the scale of today’s global fisheries sector presents a range of critical vulnerabilities. Exploiting these are an array of actors, many potentially engaged in overlapping patterns of crime ‘convergence’ in what has been described as a ‘perfect storm of illegal activities in the fishing sector’.

Our understanding of the complexity of these issues remains partial. Many relevant activities occur at sea, far from the eyes of those looking to expose them – and across supply chains spanning multiple jurisdictions. Even less well understood is how climate change is set to impact this ‘perfect storm’, with little research to date on the implications for existing patterns of crime convergence.

Yet it is increasingly clear that criminality in the fisheries sector stands to evolve in a range of ways as the world warms. A number of these potential impacts were highlighted among the top 20 themes emerging from a recent RUSI horizon scan of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing trends in a warming world. These are collated for the first time and drawn out in this article.

Climate Change and the Blue Shadow Economy

Criminal activity in the fisheries sector is categorised by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime across three broad areas. These include: crimes committed in the course of fishing operations (as a key component of IUU fishing); crimes associated with the fisheries sector (using fishing vessels or facilities, for example, but with no direct link to fishing operations); and crimes committed elsewhere in the fisheries value chain (such as fraud or corruption).

It is increasingly clear that criminality in the fisheries sector stands to evolve in a range of ways as the world warms

Although the specific intersections across and within these categories are poorly understood, the potential for crime convergence is well recognised. In numerous cases, for example, IUU fishing has been linked to modern slavery and human trafficking. Corruption is well known as a critical enabler of this activity, as are fraud and associated money laundering.

A range of changes to criminal activity in the fisheries sector can be expected as fish numbers and ranges shift with the warming of the world’s seas and oceans. Alongside damage caused by factors such as overfishing, there is evidence that oceanic warming will contribute to an ongoing decline in fish populations globally. In parallel, many species are expected to move poleward and to deeper waters as temperatures start to exceed tolerable thermal limits in a range of traditional fishing grounds.

As fish populations respond, there are significant implications for those looking to catch them – both legally and illegally. Of specific interest here are the implications for those engaged in diverse illegal activities across the sector. Here, RUSI’s horizon scan identified a number of potential ways in which climate-induced shifts stand to alter criminal portfolios across the wider blue shadow economy, which can be grouped into three broad categories, as discussed below.

1. Shifting Use of Fishing Vessels in Drug Trafficking

The use of fishing vessels globally as a vector for drug trafficking operations is well known. Advantages include the cover offered by the established transport and distribution networks used in fishing operations, among others. A 2020 study found that the use of small fishing vessels to traffic drugs is on the rise globally (albeit without showing direct links to IUU fishing itself). Specifically, the use of fishing vessels in drug transhipment operations was found to have tripled in eight years, accounting for 15% of the global retail value of illegal drugs in 2017.

These crossovers originate at the local level and stand to evolve as key species move to cooler waters, out of reach of small-scale fishers. In key locations, collapsing stocks already risk driving artisanal fishers into drug trafficking, with the proceeds pumped back into fragile fisheries. There is also potential for these risks to be exacerbated by stricter conservation measures in key areas. The trajectory along which drugs travel across the oceans may thus increasingly begin with the story of failing fisheries and the ramifications for marginalised coastal communities.

Yet warming conditions do not mean that the use of fishing vessels to traffic drugs will inevitably increase. As fish stocks adjust to a warming climate, corresponding shifts in the transport and distribution routes used in fishing operations could make fishing vessels less attractive to those looking to move drugs, where such routes no longer meet the needs of local traffickers.

The use of fishing vessels globally as a vector for drug trafficking operations is well known

In the face of any of these scenarios, this evolving area of convergence must be met with stronger measures to protect livelihoods and enhance adaptive capacities among vulnerable fishing-dependent communities.

2. Role of IUU Fishing in Fluid Criminal Portfolios

Where illegal activities converge in the fisheries sector, the makeup of the relevant criminal portfolios is dictated by risk, reward and opportunity. Where IUU fishing forms part of these portfolios, climate-driven changes in the scarcity and distribution of key resources could influence their profitability and attractiveness compared with other, non-fisheries commodities that may serve as complements or substitutes.

Specifically, as fish stocks decline, criminal actors’ calculations could shift and income streams could fluctuate as awareness grows of the profits to be made from increasingly rare high-value species. Such awareness has seen species such as the Chinese bahaba pushed to commercial extinction, with individual fish previously selling for over $450,000. In this context, an apparent prioritisation of trade in declining species is increasingly driving cycles of rapid illegal exploitation – a trend likely to continue in warmer conditions.

Such short-lived ‘booms’ have seen dwindling fisheries exploited by roving bandits as high-value species decline. As stocks collapse, those responsible move on to the next relevant species. One example concerns illegal fishing for the endangered totoaba – rare fish prized in China for their swim bladders. Fishing for totoaba using illegal gillnets has simultaneously pushed the diminutive, critically endangered vaquita to near-extinction.

Yet as fish stocks collapse or become less accessible in key locations, this could also place pressure on the profitability of IUU fishing itself. Here, the cost of accessing dwindling, displaced fish stocks could rise to the point of making IUU fishing for key species less attractive than other activities. In this scenario, ever-more sophisticated organised criminal operations could be required to access shrinking fishing grounds, with the cost and risk involved potentially outweighing associated gains.

More detailed research is needed to assess the impact of these factors on the fluctuating income streams and risk–reward calculations of actors engaged in criminality in the fisheries sector.

3. Changing Patterns of Human Exploitation

Climate change stands to impact crime in the fisheries sector further in relation to the use of human trafficking for forced labour. This connection is long established, with many examples of IUU fishing and labour exploitation occurring simultaneously.

However, the points at which these phenomena intersect stand to be influenced by a range of factors in a warming world. Notably, as fishing operators seek to offset pressure on profitability where they are forced to pursue dwindling fish stocks, they may increasingly resort to other measures to remain viable, including a greater reliance on human trafficking for forced labour and other illegal labour practices. Investigation and prosecution of relevant cases in the fisheries sector has long been inadequate, creating little in the way of deterrence.

As fishing operators seek to offset pressure on profitability where they are forced to pursue dwindling fish stocks, they may increasingly resort to other measures to remain viable

Feeding into these dynamics are not only the effects of climate change at sea, but also the impacts on land. Climate-induced pressure on profitability is increasingly felt in land-based sectors such as agriculture, with displaced members of fragile farming communities in some locations potentially vulnerable to recruitment into debt-bonded labour on fishing vessels. There are also concerns that the emergence of rising numbers of climate refugees could provide a growing labour pool for actors engaged in IUU fishing to exploit.

These complex interrelationships stand to evolve as climate stress on land affects criminal behaviour at sea and vice versa. There is thus an ongoing need to address climate-related drivers of IUU fishing and associated criminal activity in the wider context of alternative (land- and sea-based) livelihood options.

Responding to Convergence

A focus on these shifting crossovers must be prioritised as the world’s waters continue to warm. Such patterns of activity can confound established approaches, with agencies responsible for fisheries management often inadequately trained to identify other crimes. Where the portfolios of perpetrators transcend conventional categories of crime, relevant enforcement agencies must adapt to a more complex operating context – one that will continue to evolve in a warming climate.

Yet such intricacies can also offer opportunities. With penalties for IUU fishing often lax, criminal convergence presents options to prosecute criminal actors under alternative legislation – such as that linked to economic crime or drug trafficking. This may offer more robust sentencing options and thus more significant deterrents.

To exploit such options and to maximise disruptive impact, it is crucial that ongoing, context-specific analysis is conducted to identify and target common ‘nodes’ between crimes. Forecasting the ways in which such nodes stand to shift as the world’s seas and oceans warm is a crucial part of this picture.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Cathy Haenlein

Director of Organised Crime and Policing Studies

Organised Crime and Policing

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