Pacific tuna – money earner or crime threat?

The Pacific Ocean is so vast that the whole world could fit into its 165.2 million square kilometres of water and there would still be about 10 million square kilometres to spare.

In that expanse of ocean much goes on unseen by naval patrols, satellites and aircraft.

Most of that activity is illegal fisheries. According to a 2008 study, as much 11 to 26 million tonnes of fish valued at $USD23billion is lost to illegal operators.

When Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti warned the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meeting here of the threat of illegal fishing, she called it a trans-national crime.

“Human trafficking, drug smuggling, alcohol smuggling, food smuggling,” all go hand in hand with illegal fishing, she told the 600 delegates at the WCPFC 12th Regular Session.

“I come to the conclusion that IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing is not only a fishing matter. It is a big transnational crime.” 

Related to illegal fishing are several layers of criminal activities which are linked to crime syndicates from Myanmar in the West to the United States in the east.

Human trafficking, drugs, alcohol and tobacco smuggling and illegal food trade are but a few of the activities which take place on the high seas, far from the prying eyes of law enforcement agencies.

The very nature of the fisheries industry provides a perfect cover and opportunity for criminal organisations. Large ships put to sea from Asia with contraband which is transhipped on the ocean and transported to small Pacific ports.

The Pacific’s porous borders and limited surveillance capabilities mean that detection is limited.

WCPFC Executive Director, Feleti Teo, recognised the challenges faced by a region surrounded by vast expanses of water and the activities of ships in such an environment.

“It’s a long way from land. It is difficult to get data from those trans-shipments,” he said.

Fiji’s first major drugs bust more than 30 years ago involved oxygen tanks filled with heroin and left by what is believed to have been a fishing vessel on a remote island in the Lau Group.

In the early 1990s Fiji police seized contraband cigarettes in shops owned by Chinese businesspeople who were encouraged to invest in the country in the wake of Indian emigration after the 1987 coup.

That contraband was also linked to the many fishing vessels which frequent Fiji’s capital for re-supply, refuelling, repairs and recreation.

A Secretariat of the Pacific Community report in 2005 pointed out that a number of fishing boats had been apprehended with contraband cigarettes on board and warned of revenue losses for governments. 

“In large quantities this represents a loss of government excise revenue but more often liquor and cigarette smuggling is at low levels,” the report said.

“It is suspected, however, that foreign fishing vessels have been involved in other more serious forms of smuggling – drugs and weapons.”

The report said there was little reliable information on these activities but pointed out that large drug hauls in the region - including cocaine seizures and the springing up of a crystal methamphetamine laboratory in Fiji - could only have been possible using foreign fishing vessels. 

Another crime associated with fisheries is money-laundering with a number of Asian crime syndicates actively involved in the fisheries business.

With the increase in Chinese and Korean companies operating in the Pacific region, more opportunities have become available for people who want to launder money.

“All foreign fishing vessels use an underground banking system,” the SPC report said. 

“Services are bought on a cash on demand basis – fuel, repairs and maintenance, ship’s stores and payments are made in cash, including Customs duty.

“Large sums of money are involved and it is often questionable whether a cash transaction is legitimate or is in effect money laundering.’’ 

To a smaller extent, fishing vessels have been linked to arms smuggling and logging.

The SPC report, while 10 years old, points to the need for effective  monitoring, control and surveillance systems if transnational crime at seas is to be reduced.

Monitoring, control and surveillance will be one of the key areas discussed at the WCPFC talks this week.

New Zealand’s Pacific Economic Development Ambassador, Shane Jones, said his country is committed to effective surveillance of the Pacific fisheries area. 

This commitment includes aerial patrols in cooperation and partnership with Pacific island states.

“I think that some of the additional funds our prime minister has announced could very well be directed towards better surveillance outcomes,” Jones said.

Earlier this year New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced the provision of an $NZD50 million in development and a substantial amount of that money is likely to be dedicated to better outcomes for fisheries policy, planning and design.

That political effort is one way to eliminate or reduce transnational crime.

The SPC Marine Resources Assessment Group noted what it described as a striking relationship between the level of governance of a country and its vulnerability to illegal fishing. 

“Good governance appears to go hand in hand with good monitoring, control and surveillance systems and procedures,” the Group’s 2005 report said.

But it warned that good governance would not work without “the political will to enforce regulations, cooperation on surveillance with neighbours, the elimination of possibilities for illegal fishing activity, and active participation in regional and sub-regional fisheries agreements”. 

The Pacific’s record of good governance and political will – particularly in the area of resources – has been far from excellent.

In 2005 an audit of the Solomon Islands Department of Fisheries and Marine Resources revealed $USD9million had been lost as a result of corruption and fraud in relation to fishing licences.

The Global Initiative Against Organised Crime in its 2015 report described corruption associated with foreign fishing vessel activity in the Pacific region as endemic at all levels. 

“This is a reflection of the lack of transparency and good governance as well as imperfections in the market,” the report said. 

“The growth of the tuna industry has given rise to opportunities for corrupt practices which may range from failing to negotiate the best fee for fishing access licences, failing to report or follow up cases of (illegal) fishing, illegally issuing extensions to or retrospective fishing access licences.”

Typically, the hard-line Indonesian stand has been to interdict illegal fishing boats, blow them out of the water and then prosecute the operators and corrupt officials.

New Zealand’s head of delegation warned that smaller Pacific countries wanting to stop transnational crime might not want use every one of Indonesia’s steps.

“(Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti) has demonstrated her zeal in getting the correct resource management outcomes by destroying vessels. I wouldn’t encourage Tuvalu to move in that direction,” Ambassador Jones said.

“But having said that, the essence of her challenge wasn’t designed to irk anyone but was designed to wake people up.”

Over the next six days Pacific fishing nations will attempt to address the impact of illegal fisheries and how best to deal with this scaly issue.

But that will just be the beginning of what is quite literally a host of fishy activities throughout the region.