The Definition of the Environmental Crime

Illegal fishing activities are defined by the international community and the European Union (EU)[1] as activities conducted by fishing vessels in violation of national laws or international obligations, or activities conducted in maritime waters without the permission of that state. In addition to the activities of fishing operators, illegal fishing is often associated with upstream and downstream criminal activities such as money laundering, corruption, document fraud, or handling of stolen goods, although these are not explicitly included in the official definitions (UNODC 2011).

Unreported fishing refers to activities that have not been reported, or have been misreported, to the relevant national authority or regional fisheries management organization, in contravention of their reporting procedures. Unregulated fishing refers to activities conducted in areas or for fish stocks in relation to which there are no applicable conservation or management measures, in a manner that is not consistent with state responsibilities for the conservation of marine living resources under international law. IUU fishing is often described as an environmental crime, although technically unregulated fishing does not actually involve the breaking of any obligations in law, so technically only illegal and unreported fishing are illegal and may be encompassed by the term ‘environmental crime’. However, the three types of fishing activity are often discussed together, and it is not always easy to distinguish between them in the literature (e.g. data on IUU fishing are often reported together).

It is important to establish what activities precisely are considered to be non-compliant since, by definition, anything that is an infringement of the law is illegal. Illegal fishing therefore covers a wide range of actions. According to the IUU Regulation (EC) No 1005/2008 (see below for overview of regulation of fisheries in EU waters), EU vessels shall be presumed to be engaging in IUU fishing if they have, contrary to the conservation and management measures applicable in the fishing area concerned, been shown to be (European Council 2008):

  • a) Fishing without a valid licence, authorization, or permit issued by the flag State or the relevant coastal State.
  • b) Not fulfilling obligations to record and report catch or catch-related data, including data to be transmitted by satellite vessel monitoring system.
  • c) Fishing in a closed area, during a closed season, without or after attainment of a quota or beyond a closed depth.
  • d) Engaging in directed fishing for a stock that is subject to a moratorium or for which fishing is prohibited.
  • e) Using prohibited or non-compliant fishing gear.
  • f) Falsifying or concealing its markings, identity, or registration.
  • g) Concealing, tampering with or disposing of evidence relating to an investigation.
  • h) Obstructing the work of officials in the exercise of their duties in inspecting for compliance with the applicable conservation and management measures, or the work of observers in the exercise of their duties of observing compliance with the applicable Community rules.
  • i) Taking on board, transhipping, or landing undersized fish in contravention of the legislation in force.
  • j) Transhipping or participating in joint fishing operations with support or re-supply from fishing vessels identified as having engaged in IUU fishing, in particular those included in the Community IUU vessel list or in the IUU vessel list of a regional fisheries management organization.
  • k) Carrying out fishing activities in the area of a regional fisheries management organization in a manner inconsistent with or in contravention of the conservation and management measures of that organization.
  • l) Use of a fishing vessel with no nationality (a stateless vessel in accordance with international law).

The fishing industry has also been identified as vulnerable to international organized crime and associated with serious illegal activities including trafficking in persons, drugs and arms, smuggling of migrants, and terrorism (UNODC 2011). There have also been reports of poor or forced labour on board fishing vessels (UNODC 2011). The UNODC (2011) found several reported instances where there were links between human and drug trafficking and marine living resource crime (particularly in relation to high value, low volume species such as abalone, sturgeon, or toothfish).

IUU fishing is a global problem, but the effects vary region by region. Unregulated fishing occurs largely on the high seas (Pew Charitable Trusts 2013). Agnew et al. (2009a) conducted one of the most extensive studies into the size of illegal and unreported fishing, analysing 54 Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), which can extend up to 200 NM from the coast, and 15 regions of the high seas, and covering 46 per cent of the globally reported marine fish caught. The Eastern Central Atlantic exhibited the highest level of illegal and unreported catches (37 per cent of catches between 2000 and 2003; Agnew et al. 2009a). Trends show that in the northeast Atlantic IUU, fishing increased in the early 1990s (up from 10 per cent in the 1980s to 12 per cent), attributed to an increase in fishing pressure resulting from the end of a period of exceptionally high cod recruitment. The situation started to improve slightly in the early 2000s (dropping to 9 per cent; Agnew et al. 2009a).

  • [1] See Articles 2, 3, and 4 of Council Regulation (EC) No 1005/2008 establishing a Communitysystem to prevent, deter, and eliminate IUU fishing (European Counci 2008).
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