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Study links many reported fisheries crimes to just a few repeat offenders

  • A new study in the journal Science Advances analyzed roughly 8,000 fisheries offenses reported globally between 2000 and 2020, a database the authors call the “largest existing repository” of reported fisheries offenses.
  • The study shows that a small number of companies may be responsible for a large chunk of international industrial fisheries crimes.
  • It also shows that the vessels committing abuses, such as unauthorized fishing and human rights and labor violations, often engaged in more than one offense.
  • Illegal fishing accounts for one fourth the value of all landed seafood products, roughly $30 billion globally. It contributes to the depletion of fish and other marine wildlife populations.

The shadowy world of fisheries crime is difficult to study; much of the action takes place far from land, without the knowledge of anyone but the perpetrators.

New research shows that a small number of companies may be responsible for a large chunk of international fisheries crimes. It also shows that the vessels committing abuses, such as unauthorized fishing and human rights and labor violations, often engage in more than one offense.

The study, funded by the Washington, D.C.-based NGO Oceana and published March 23 in the journal Science Advances, offers new insight into patterns of illegal activity across the global fishing industry that can help authorities address fisheries crimes, according to its authors.

To conduct the study, Dyhia Belhabib, principal investigator at the NGO Ecotrust Canada and director of the Vancouver, British Columbia-based startup Nautical Crime Investigation Services, and Philippe Le Billon, a professor at the University of British Columbia, compiled roughly 8,000 unique offenses reported from nearly 7,000 incidents between 2000 and 2020. They gathered the records mainly from reports by governments, NGOs and the media, naming the database the Criminal Record of Fishing Vessels.

While the authors call it the “largest existing repository” of reported fisheries offenses, the actual number of crimes at sea is likely much higher due to an overall lack of monitoring and reporting in the fishing sector.

The paper states illegal fishing accounts for one-fourth the value of all landed seafood products, roughly $30 billion globally. Abetted by insufficient monitoring, illegal fishing is spurred by high demand for seafood and, cyclically, reduced stock due to overfishing. It contributes to the depletion of fish and other marine wildlife populations, as well as to human rights and labor abuses, including slavery at sea, as fishing companies seek to further maximize profit through long work hours and reduced labor costs.

“This study demonstrates the ability to identify offenders and patterns of behaviors threatening fisheries sustainability at a global level and countries most vulnerable to transversal criminality,” the paper says, calling for major offenders to be brought to account.

A vessel suspected of conducting illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing operations in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Image by Shannon Kearney / U.S. Coast Guard via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Multiple crimes ‘typical’ in fishing industry

According to the analysis, unauthorized fishing accounted for 48% of offenses in the database, followed by other fishing offenses (related to gear, season, fishing zone, and quota or reporting violations) at 31%. Then came human rights and labor abuse at 11%. Offenses related to transshipment, the transfer of catch or other goods between vessels, and smuggling of non-fish products made up most of the remainder, at 3% and 4% respectively.

Among offenses in the database where the perpetrator’s sector — artisanal vs. industrial — was identified, artisanal vessels committed the most offenses (56% vs. 44%) due to their sheer number as well as generally being active closer to shore. However, an overwhelming 90% of these offenses were unauthorized fishing, and there were few co-occurrences with other crimes.

In the industrial sector, the authors found the major categories of crime were unauthorized fishing offenses at 30%, other fishing offenses at 39%, human rights and labor abuse at 13%, and fish transshipment offenses at 8%.

In 772 of the incidents, or 11%, vessels engaged in more than one crime. This was most common in the industrial fishing sector. Different types of illegal fishing constituted 36% of all existing nodes. Co-occurrences of illegal fishing and human rights or labor abuses constituted 42% of nodes, further cementing the well-documented correlation between illegal fishing and abuse of crew.

Nearly half of the vessels committing human rights and labor abuses also committed a second offense, with illegal fishing and illegal transshipment being the most common.

“We have always known that vessels commit various crimes at the same time, that’s not news,” Belhabib said in an interview with Mongabay. “The novelty [of these findings] is the extent to which it actually happens … It’s very typical.”

“There was no other analysis previously done on this topic. Usually we look into different offenses separately. 11% is a big number considering that agencies are not necessarily trained to look into various types of crimes, hence that is only the tip of the iceberg,” she added via email.

An unauthorized Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese fisheries patrol boat. Unauthorized fishing accounted for 48% of offenses in the database a new study analyzed. Image by 人事院 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

Targeted responses needed to address fisheries crimes

In the industrial fishing sector, offenses were highly concentrated among a relatively small group of actors.

The authors could identify the owner of vessels involved in 1,700 of the reported incidents. They found that one-third of the corresponding offenses were committed by just 450 industrial vessels representing 20 companies.

Among these, 12 companies were flagged to China, including the government-supported Pingtan Marine Enterprise. Two of the companies flagged their vessels to South Korea, and one company each flagged their vessels to Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, Indonesia, Panama and Sierra Leone. Three of the 20 — China National Fisheries Corporation and two companies owned by South Korea’s Sajo Group — are among the world’s top 10 largest companies in terms of fishing effort in international waters.

The prevalence of Chinese fishing companies involved in offenses points to “the need for Chinese authorities to intervene even more stringently” in their fleet’s activities, the paper notes. However, in an interview with Mongabay, Belhabib cautioned against assuming China is “the bad guy” when it comes to fisheries crimes.

“We have more data on certain regions and certain flag countries than others,” she said, noting that she and Le Billon derived some of their data from media reports, which tend to focus on China. Other reasons for data gaps included time constraints on the research team and differing levels of reporting on fisheries crimes by country.

“If we want to eliminate this bias, we have to go further than this, and every single country out there has to share its information,” she said.

Although Belhabib called the convergence on a few industrial actors “surprising,” she said she believes a similar trend would play out even if there were no gaps in the data.

Henrik Österblom, science director at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, whose research focuses on ocean governance, expressed similar views.

“The main finding of the paper, is that illegal fishing is not everywhere, and conducted by everyone, as one sometimes is made to believe,” he wrote in an email to Mongabay.

Because of the acknowledged data gaps, “all numbers presented should be regarded as ‘indications’ rather than reflecting reality,” Österblom said. “It is however (in general) likely that a small number of companies are repeat offenders.

“I would not be surprised if there are a few companies that find it cost-effective to specialize in illegal (and semi-legal) activities as a business model,” he added.

Inspection of a Korean fishing vessel in Sierra Leone. Image © Pierre Gleizes / Greenpeace.

Österblom noted that Belhabib and Le Billon’s analysis can help identify solutions, enabling authorities to pinpoint which actors, regions and other factors they should focus on to combat fisheries crimes, as well as which interventions might be effective.

The authors offered some suggestions themselves: They called on relevant authorities around the world to refine how they deal with fisheries crimes and suggested different approaches for industrial and artisanal offenders.

Japan, which at 2,222 incidents reported by far the most offenses of any country covered in the research, is a case in point. Small-scale North Korean vessels fishing without authorization appear to account for a significant portion of these offenses — compelled, Belhabib presumed, by hunger and desperation.

For industrial offenders motivated by profit and capable of far more damaging overfishing, the authors recommend “tougher penalties, such as vessel confiscation and jail time.” Österblom noted that although convicting vessel owners is challenging, successful past convictions have been effective deterrents.

The authors also stress the need for authorities to address the full range of crimes fisheries commit, including human rights and labor abuses, rather than focusing narrowly on fishing offenses.

As for small-scale fishers like those caught in Japanese waters, Belhabib said she believes addressing the drivers of their illegal activity, which the paper names as poverty and displacement, “is more urgent than addressing the situation on the water.”

Banner image: A U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement detachment member and a Ghanaian navy sailor inspect a fishing vessel suspected of illegal fishing. Image by Kwabena Akuamoah-Boateng, U.S. Embassy Ghana via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Annelise Giseburt is a freelance reporter based in Tokyo.


Belhabib, D., & Le Billon, P. (2022). Fish crimes in the global oceans. Science Advances, 8(12). doi:10.1126/sciadv.abj1927

Carmine, G., Mayorga, J., Miller, N. A., Park, J., Halpin, P. N., Ortuño Crespo, G., … Jacquet, J. (2020). Who is the high seas fishing industry? One Earth3(6), 730-738. doi:10.1016/j.oneear.2020.11.017

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