Coast KZN

26 Jul 2022

Fisheries crime is a huge parallel economic system – FishFORCE is harnessing tech to fight it

Hennie van As (Daily Maverick) Picture: EPA-EFE / Dai Kurokawa. Fisheries law enforcement is transdisciplinary by nature, requiring expertise in law, criminology, police science, fisheries science, fisheries management and marine living resources conservation, says the writer.

South African fisheries are a target for organised crime and the country is losing huge amounts of revenue. Treasury and the taxman must become more involved. Billions of rands and national marine resources are being lost.

Organised crime, with its link to the illegal harvesting, processing and trading of fish and seafood globally, is so huge that it is in effect a parallel economic system, undermining sustainable economic growth and posing a significant challenge to fisheries law enforcement agencies across the world. The many crimes affecting the global fisheries sector range from illegal fishing and extraction of marine resources, to human and drug trafficking, forced labour, fraud, forgery, corruption, money laundering and tax and customs evasion.

The FishFORCE Academy was established in 2016 as a result of a growing realisation that illegal fishing is far more than this, and that in many instances the activities are undertaken by international organised crime syndicates. FishFORCE aims to improve the knowledge and skills of fisheries control officers and inspectors, to promote the prioritisation of fisheries crime and intelligence-led investigations and to improve prosecutions of fisheries crime in Africa and globally. From the outset we have strongly advocated that fisheries crimes be addressed as priority crimes due to their links to transnational organised crime, and prosecuted as such under the Prevention of Organised Crime Act, with severe penalties of 25 years to life.

Countries are being deprived of taxes, citizens of jobs, food and income, and fisheries and environments are being destroyed. Many developing countries are unable to effectively enforce fisheries laws and are therefore unable to manage their coastal zones.

Research by the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that southern and East Africa lose in the region of R12.2-billion to illegal and unreported fishing every year. It further estimates that 85% of fish stocks worldwide are now fully exploited, and illegal fishing is one of the main contributors.

Huge losses, no deterrents

By and large the penalties for fisheries crimes – including illegal catching and possession of fish and seafood species, and operating illegal storage and fish-processing facilities – are not having a deterrent effect. South African fisheries are a target for organised crime and the country is losing massive amounts of revenue. Treasury and the South African Revenue Service must become more involved. Billions of rands and national marine resources are being lost.

Much of the global fisheries crime activity linked with fishing is happening off the coast of South Africa and Namibia and the east coast of Africa. The fishing vessels that illegally fish in our exclusive economic zone don’t need to visit our harbours – they make their transshipments offshore – but we don’t have the capacity to deal with it. There are far too few patrol vessels and fisheries control officers for South Africa’s 2,800 km coastline. Adding to this, many fisheries crimes – officially referred to as illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing – continue to be dealt with as a fisheries management issue, resulting in less-severe penalties that are not having a deterrent effect.

It is encouraging that some of our courts are responding to the seriousness of these crimes. Three major abalone (perlemoen) racketeering cases in South Africa – State v Blignaut; State v Miller and State v Brown – have been prosecuted as organised crime, with sentences of 18 to 20 years delivered in March 2018 and March 2019. This needs to become the norm because overall our marine resources are not being protected in the same way that we protect our gold or work to protect our rhinos. While marine living resources are strictly regulated by law, the implementation, administration and enforcement fall woefully short.

A considerable upscaling of governance and management of our marine living resources is required. Fisheries law enforcement is transdisciplinary by nature, requiring expertise in law, criminology, police science, fisheries science, fisheries management and marine living resources conservation.

Time is not on our side and far more stringent laws, combined with specialised policing and intelligence gathering for fisheries organised crimes, as well as harsh sentences, need to be prioritised at a national and international level.

The power of tech

Technology also needs to be harnessed to enhance marine vigilance. FishFORCE’s chief operating officer, Michael de Lange, and I recently returned from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Tasmania where they have developed a system of hydrophones that are put in the water around marine protected areas (MPAs) for targeted law enforcement.

The hydrophones can detect the full range of sounds – from the smallest, such as scuba-diving bubbles, to inboard and outboard motors and seismic blasting. The sounds indicate if there is possible illegal activity in or near the MPA by sending a warning signal to computer systems operated by law enforcement agencies.

Following consultations with the national priority crimes committee, the operational arm of Operation Phakisa, FishFORCE is entering into an agreement with CSIRO where both parties will partly fund hydrophones for a pilot project in South African MPAs.

The tube-shaped hydrophones remain underwater with a small surface aerial to transmit to the reception points. The system is cost-effective and has already been tested in Indonesia to great effect. It promotes targeted, intelligence-driven law enforcement, and could prove far more effective than the current attempts to patrol South Africa’s 42 MPAs, particularly since we have a frightening shortage of fisheries control officers. We aim to have the pilots in our waters in 2022 and are in discussion with the national priority crime committee to decide where to place them; maybe Robben Island in Table Bay and Bird Island in Algoa Bay, both of which are hotspots for abalone poaching.

Over the past six years, with funding from the Norwegian government, we have worked hard at expanding FishFORCE’s national and international strategies and training programmes for fisheries law enforcement aimed at combating organised crime in the fisheries environment. Our approach increasingly includes the use of tech.

Game on

Another project we are working on is a gamification training tool. We are collaborating with an immersive technologies company in Cape Town called Sea Monster to develop a virtual law enforcement game designed for law enforcement officers in the fisheries crime environment. The prototype will be available before the end of the year.

It presents a range of scenarios which the officers must navigate to learn how to correctly conduct vessel inspections so that they don’t lose cases on technicalities. The game can be used internationally and we’ll be making it available to all our partner countries – Namibia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya and the Western Indian Ocean island states of Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros, Reunion and Madagascar – and to any other international law enforcement agencies that request it.

Increasing the skills of law enforcement officers to investigate and prosecute fisheries crime is essential for crime control to protect marine living resources and help ensure food security, thereby promoting economic development.To contribute to this, FishFORCE has a strong and growing presence in Africa. We have established training academies in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Mauritius.

Our agreements are with universities in the respective countries, mainly through their law faculties. They then get the permissions and paperwork done with their governments. They are very receptive as we are all facing major fisheries organised crime. Mauritius, for example, has a serious issue with illegal offshore fishing by big trawlers. Mozambique faces massive illegal trade in rays, and the illegal shark fin trade is a problem everywhere.

As with our abalone, the major destination for illegal wildlife resources is Hong Kong. It’s the gateway to China. We’re talking about a parallel economy that includes a range of marine and wildlife resources. Money laundering and drug and human trafficking are all part of it.

Pilot training

In collaboration with WWF and the South African Judicial Education Institute, and with funding from USAID, we recently completed a pilot online training programme for regional court magistrates on illegal wildlife trade, including fisheries organised crime. The first training for magistrates took place in June.

The concepts of fisheries crime and the protection of marine living resources are part of the training curriculum, which previously only dealt with terrestrial fauna and flora. The programme is also focused on increasing the awareness among members of the judiciary with regards to the nature, extent and impact of fisheries organised crime.

To continue building regional and international law enforcement expertise and strengthen cooperation between partner countries, FishFORCE, together with Stop Illegal Fishing, hosted three training workshops earlier in 2022 in Dar es Salaam, Maputo and Mombasa on the implementation of the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA). Port state measures are recognised as an effective tool to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The use of South African ports by distant fleets which engage in IUU fishing is an example of the need for stronger implementation of port state measures. Inspections in ports undertaken as multi-agency efforts are key for addressing illicit activities in fishing in a cost-efficient manner.

To ensure that training in the PSMA implementation is effectively targeted, FishFORCE produced a report on the readiness of countries (South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Seychelles, Madagascar and Mauritius) to implement the agreement. The number of port inspections and their effectiveness are too low in the region. The best results will be achieved if many states collaborate. Angola, Tanzania and Comoros need to become parties to the PSMA, as these are the only remaining states in southern and East Africa not to have ratified the agreement. This would facilitate joint plans for the implementation of the PSMA and other relevant international instruments, such as International Labour Organization instruments on working conditions on fishing vessels. DM

(Professor Hennie van As is an admitted advocate and is public law professor, founder and director of FishFORCE (Africa’s first fisheries law enforcement academy) and director of the Centre for Law in Action (CLA) at Nelson Mandela University, where FishFORCE is situated.)