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The Promise of Fisheries Criminology

December 6, 2013

Boarding officers from a U.S. Coast Guard cutter during joint U.S.-Sierra Leone fisheries enforcement operation. It is likely activities such as these could be greatly improved through criminological analysis.

The truth is that the global epidemic of illegal fishing is unlikely to be resolved until we improve our understanding of it.  And there appears to be no better way to do this than through the evaluation of the problem through the theoretical lens, body of literature, and issue experts that comprise the field of criminology.

At its most basic, the field of criminology offers four ways to greatly improve our understanding of illegal fishing.

1. Criminology offers us more realistic expectations.

The evaluation of illegal fishing as one of a universe of crimes can be quite helpful in that it might provide us with a realistic set of expectations for how we will ‘solve’ the problem.

Illegal fishing is one type of ‘green’ crime that includes with it poaching, illegal dumping, and a host of other prohibited actions that harm the environment.  And this green crime is part of a much larger set of legally prohibited actions that cause harm to society, everything ranging from copyright infringement and securities fraud to rape and murder.  Consideration of these ‘Law and Order’ type crimes suggests that 1) we will never put an end to illegal fishing and 2) significant amounts of illegal fishing will likely continue barring any revolution in fisheries enforcement.

In spite of the grave social problems caused by what are known as “Part 1” crimes (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, etc), these crimes still continue and a great many go unsolved.  For example, in 2007, 1.2 million violent crimes were committed in the United States, and only 44.5% resulted in an arrest.  It is generally held that arrest rates are even lower for crimes that require specialized knowledge, such as securities fraud, and I would suggest green crime like illegal fishing would similarly require a great deal of specialized knowledge that most law enforcement agents lack.

Many crimes also go unreported, so the true arrest rates are in fact quite lower than official statistics. For example, just 40% of reported rapes result in an arrest, but victimization surveys suggest that most rapes go unreported.  According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, the number of rapes reported by respondents is more than twice the number of rapes reported to the police.  While it may be insensitive to compare sexual assault with something like illegal fishing, it should merit a brief consideration of how these two crimes are similar with respect to reporting. In the former, the victims typically have a disincentive to reporting the crime, while in the latter, the victim – the natural environment – is unable to report the crime.  Both are therefore likely to be significantly under-reported and less frequently ‘solved’.

Given these figures, I’d suggest that a good starting estimate is that less than 1/3 of illegal fishing activities is ever reported to the authorities. And if we assume this type of ‘property crime’ is similar to other types of property crime, we might assume that a similar official arrest rate of 16.5% could be applied.  This means that if we assume illegal fishing is like other types of crime, and we assume that only traditional policing and legitimacy building activities are employed, we might only ever reach an arrest rate of 5% or less for all illegal fishing.  (Obviously, this suggests we need some innovation…)

2. Criminology suggests that education and trust are of utmost importance.

The low likelihood of stopping illegal fishing (given current technologies) suggests that education and trust-building activities are going to be key to ensuring global fisheries sustainability.  The reason is that crimes can be conceptually divided into two types.

The first type is comprised of crimes that are mala in se, or inherently bad, and as such there exist strong informal social norms that mutually reinforce formal law to disincentivize potential perpetrators.  Mala in se crimes include such actions as murder, rape, and incest.

The second type is comprised of crimes that are malum in prohibitum, or bad according to the law. These are crimes such as speeding or failing to register a rental unit with the municipal government. In Washington DC, at least, these crimes are common and wouldn’t typically suggest that you are a bad person if you commit them.

The moral difference between these two categories means that malum in prohibitum crimes are committed far more regularly and with less moral difficulty than mala in se crimes.

Now which category do you think illegal fishing would fall into?  To facilitate this thought experiment, imagine that you are a poorly fishermen with a small boat and all of a sudden government scientists are telling you cannot fish half the year because local fish populations are overfished.  You are unsure of how the scientists arrived at this conclusion, but you are absolutely certain that you have a family to feed. Would you morally struggle with the decision to fish during a closed season?  I’d suggest that you would not.

Thus, it is likely that illegal fishing is viewed as malum in prohibitum by most fishers. To change this, it will fall to governments, NGOs, and enlightened industry members to educate fishers as to the moral dimensions of overfishing and improve trust relations between fishers and scientists so that the science is viewed as credible.

3. Criminology offers us research methods to conduct more structured and context-specific analysis of fisheries.

A quick review of existing illegal fishing literature reveals that analysis of the problem is mostly limited to a handful of studies that examine illegal fishers’ motivations in the abstract. They identify that fisher noncompliance is a function of diverse economic and normative factors. Yet the reality is that such factors combine with diverse fishery contexts to generate highly complex and idiosyncratic motivations to break fishery rules. Because of this, careful fishery and sub-fishery analysis is required to understand and address the drivers of illegal fishing.

And where are our research methods to come from?  Criminology.  The field has decades of experience studying the diverse motivations for such crimes as theft, drug trafficking, and even genocide. There’s no reason we can’t adapt existing research methods to fit the needs of fisheries managers, marine conservationists, and the fishing industry.

4. Criminology offers us possible solutions to the illegal fishing epidemic.

Finally, the field of criminology offers us a number of possible solutions to greatly reduce illegal fishing around the world. Technological solutions such as intelligence-led policing, CCTV monitoring, and cell phone apps, and social solutions such as community policing and police-community engagement could go a long way to changing the ‘game’ for legal and illegal fishers alike. And thankfully, there is a considerable number of studies of how these solutions can best be implemented and evaluated.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Dana Miller permalink
    December 6, 2013 4:59 pm

    Wonderful piece. I think you are most certainly onto something here. A wonderfully fresh way of looking at this very challenging problem.

    • December 12, 2013 1:09 pm

      Thanks, Dana. I’ve now been accepted and offered full funding at one of my target schools, so it looks like I’ll get a chance to see if I’m right here. Wish me luck!

  2. Dyhia permalink
    December 6, 2013 5:11 pm

    If we consider that usually illegal fishing rimes with slavery, drug smuggling and human trafficking (among other horrible things), illegal fishing will be seen as a major problem (not only environment is harmed and some value is lost for the society, but major issues are directly related to this). THANK you for this amazing and refreshing piece of work!

    • December 12, 2013 1:11 pm

      Thanks, Dyhia. You are absolutely right. In some places – like W. Africa and S.E. Asia, it appears that illegal fishing is frequently tied up with human trafficking/slavery. A nasty business. It will be interesting to see if the measures put in place to protect the fishers can always open up new avenues to protect the marine ecosystems as well.

  3. December 7, 2013 1:28 pm

    Paraphrasing… I’d suggest that a good starting estimate is that less than 1/20 (5%) of illegal fishing activities was ever known by the authorities. Consolidation of fishing rights in the hands of powerful fishing operators (fishers) brings that estimate to a paltry 1/100 (1%).

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