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Africa is losing an estimated US$25billion per year to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing run by organised crime syndicates.

This is according to research released at the end of October 2022 by the Financial Transparency Coalition (FTC).

The report shows that IUU fishing accounts for as much as one-fifth of global fisheries catches, with overall economic losses estimated at US$50billion, ‘making it the third most lucrative natural resource crime after timber and mining’.

I’ve said it before and I say it again, fisheries crime so huge that it is in effect a lucrative, violent parallel economic system that is undermining sustainable economic growth. Countries are being deprived of taxes; citizens of jobs, food and income; and fisheries and environments are being destroyed. This is having devasting impact on the three billion people worldwide who depend on fish and marine resources for protein. It is one of the biggest threats to global food security.

In South Africa, it is estimated that the country is losing at least US$60 million a year due to abalone/perlemoen poaching alone. This is according to the wildlife trade-monitoring organisation TRAFFIC.

With a coastline spanning more than 3600 kilometres, South Africa possesses significant marine resources. Many coastal birds, seals, other fish species and ocean mammals rely on fish and other marine living resources for their survival. If fish populations plummet, the whole marine species chain will be threatened with extinction.

Two of South Africa's highest-value marine species, abalone (Haliotis midae) and West Coast rock lobster (Jasus lalandii) are under severe threat from international organised crime syndicates. Since 2000, according to a report by TRAFFIC, poaching syndicates have smuggled more than 96 million individual abalone to Hong Kong, the epicentre of the trade. This equates to nearly 15 000 illegally harvested each day.

A considerable shift in thinking is required around the management of our fisheries to develop a co-ordinated and enhanced law enforcement programme of our coasts and oceans, and put in place systems where the local communities can benefit.

Currently, the South African Police Service (SAPS) is not using the full power of the law to address the largescale poaching of marine living resources as a priority crime. Every week I am sent information about huge consignments of illegal catches, but the vast majority of perpetrators are charged under the Marine Living Resources Act and often get away with paying fines of R2500.

This erodes respect for the rule of law and leads to socio-economic degradation, the proliferation of gangsterism and the convergence with other crimes, including the trade in drugs, cigarettes, other wildlife products and human trafficking. Access to bail for fisheries crimes in South Africa is far too easy and leads to repeat offences. Most foreigners who are arrested here and are granted bail, disappear.

To offer an example: despite previous convictions and a five-year suspended sentence for his role in abalone smuggling in the Eastern Cape, Morne Blignaut Jnr was released on bail on 28 February this year after the court found that the state had failed to prove he should be kept in custody. He is the son of one of Gqerberha’s perlemoen poaching kingpins, Morne Blignaut Snr, who, in 2018 was sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment for perlemoen smuggling, and is still behind bars. This was one of the first cases charged under POCA, which some of our prosecutors have started implementing with some success, but the number of cases are minimal.

What needs to change as a matter of urgency is that if organised crime is suspected, it needs to be investigated and charged under the Prevention of Organised Crime Act (POCA), which carries far harsher sentences than convictions under the Marine Living Resources Act. Under POCA, sentences of 20 years and more have been imposed. The principal reason this is not happening is that our law enforcement agencies lack the capacity to undertake complex investigations and the whole process from arrest to prosecution to court ruling is taking far too many years, which is no deterrent for criminals.

There are pockets of excellence, including certain prosecutors who have started prosecuting poaching on alternative charges aimed at prevention, and are achieving convictions for attempt to commit a crime when people are found in possession of instruments and equipment used for poaching.

In general, SAPS is not geared towards POCA-style investigations, notwithstanding an initiative launched by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) after POCA came into operation. SAPS and the NPA, key players in the prosecution of fisheries crime, lack understanding of organised fisheries crime and there are not enough trained police officers or Fisheries Control Officers (FCOs) on the ground.

To advance the professionalism of law enforcement in South Africa’s fisheries sector with the aim of combating sea fisheries crime, FishFORCE has ongoing training programmes for FCOs and police officers. We are also training fisheries law enforcement agencies to administer and enforce existing legislation in six academies we have established in southern Africa through linkages with universities in those countries.

As part of the training, we enable law enforcers to implement the UN’s Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), which is the first international agreement aimed specifically at reducing IUU fishing. The PSMA requires that countries prohibit foreign flagged vessels suspected of illegal fishing from using their ports and that they conduct inspections of vessels. 

In the FTC report it explains: ‘Much IUU fishing involves large foreign distant water fishing (DWF) fleets from industrialised countries. These work especially in Global South countries which cannot effectively monitor their waters and enforce regulations, and are prone to corruption.’ The report goes on the say that IUU operators use shell companies, joint ventures, and flags of convenience to mask links to owners, allowing them to operate with virtual impunity.

The lead author of the report, Alfonso Daniels, says the only way there will be any change is through pressure from the main seafood markets, namely, Japan, the USA and the European Union. China also needs to be involved as the study showed that 10 companies involved in IUU fishing were responsible for nearly a quarter of all reported cases, and that of those ten, eight were from China.

Given that oceans know no borders, all countries need to address fisheries crime. In South Africa, FishFORCE serves on the Priority Crimes Committee.

The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), with support from TRAFFIC, FishFORCE and other stakeholders, convened a multi-stakeholder workshop in Stellenbosch from 27 February – 3 March this year, with the aim of developing a National Strategy and Action Plan to Prevent and Combat the Trade in Illegally Harvested South African Abalone. We are hoping to achieve a more integrated system of addressing poaching, and for organisations like ourselves to work more closely with the NPA to improve the effectiveness of prosecutions. FishFORCE is the lead in one of the workstreams that looks at possible legislative amendments and alternative methods of law enforcement.

We need to act quickly because as the UN puts it, we are facing an ‘ocean emergency’ because of overfishing. It is an international sustainability problem, which, as Daniels adds, would also be “in rich countries’ long-term interest to make sure they address the problems IUU fishing is causing in Global South states”.

By Professor Hennie van As, Director of FishFORCE, advocate; professor of Public Law in the Faculty of Law, Nelson Mandela University; One Ocean Hub co-investigator with funding from the United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and honorary senior fellow in the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and
Security (ANCORS) at the University of Wollongong, Australia.

About FishFORCE

FishFORCE is Africa’s first Fisheries Law Enforcement Academy, situated in the Centre for Law in Action, Faculty of Law, Nelson Mandela University. It was established in 2016 with the financial aid of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It trains fisheries law enforcement agencies in South Africa, the continent and the Indian Ocean Rim to administer and enforce legislation, and to conduct research and advocacy aimed at combating illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing and organised fisheries crime.

This article appeared on News24 Business on 30 March 2023

Contact information
Professor Hendrik Van As
Professor of Public Law and Director of the Centre for Law in Action (CLA)
Tel: 27 41 504 1200