Curtailing Maritime Crime
Countries should look at multinational approaches to regulating and limiting illegal fishing, trafficking, smuggling and other sea crimes
Dr. Erika Techera and Dr. Jade Lindley
Maritime crimes plague the Indo-Asia-Pacific region and disrupt the global trade that passes within it. These crimes affect not only those nations within the region but also countries that receive goods from it as cargo. Reportedly, maritime criminals operating in this region commit illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing; commit piracy; traffic in drugs; and smuggle people into forced and free labor. These transnational crimes attract criminal syndicates that pursue smaller-scale crimes to fund the clandestine movement of drugs bound for Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the United States. Authorities intercept countless illicit drugs transiting the Indo-Asia-Pacific region each year. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) estimates that East and Southeast Asia are the largest markets for amphetamine-type stimulants in the world. Trafficking of methamphetamine and heroin in this region alone generates more than U.S. $42 billion annually, according to UNODC data. While vast sea trade routes provide opportunities to commit these crimes, official corruption and lax legal frameworks enable criminals to undermine regulatory control. This article provides an overview of maritime crimes occurring within the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, explains existing legal and regulatory frameworks, and offers some best-practice solutions to enhance the security of food and people within that region.
Increasing awareness of complex threats
Indo-Asia-Pacific countries border a wide expanse of ocean, and each nation differs from the next in terms of size, population, development status, socio-cultural and politico-legal context. The vast geographic nature of the region lends itself to oceanic exploitation and clandestine activities because oversight is limited. In the past five years, illegal fishing, facilitated by forced labor aboard vessels and its links to transnational organized crime, has emerged as a priority on the global agenda. Increased exposure through research and media attention has improved global awareness of not only the direct impact of such crimes on economies in the region but also of the interconnections between these maritime crimes and the health of the whole of society.
Investigations by international bodies, governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the Environmental Justice Foundation, exposed such problems in Southeast Asia and in particular Thailand. Illegal fishing facilitated by forced labor is a multifaceted problem. Aided by weak governance and, in most cases, corruption, it damages fishing stocks and breaches basic human rights on many levels. The persistence of IUU fishing using forced labor, often involving people trafficked into the industry, anchors those vulnerable people in permanent poverty, damages the livelihoods of legitimate fishers, and undermines good governance by supporting organized criminal networks and weakening security infrastructure.
Maritime piracy and IUU fishing have always had a presence in the Southeast Asia region. The scale of these traditional maritime crimes was manageable by regional regulators and until recently, maritime piracy posed little threat to passing vessels.
Maritime piracy involves illegal acts of violence on the high seas. During the sharp rise of Somali piracy in 2008, naval vessels operating under the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) coalitions increased their presence off the Horn of Africa to guard vulnerable vessels transiting that region. Naval vessels previously deterring piracy in the Malacca Strait and South China Sea moved to the Indian Ocean, leaving the Asian region exposed to a piracy surge. During the peak of Somali piracy between 2008 and 2011, Indonesian pirates committed 129 attacks, compared to 786 Somali attacks. In the four years that followed, International Maritime Bureau data revealed a reversal in this trend. There was a threefold increase in Indonesian piracy attacks to 395 a year; meanwhile, Somali attacks declined to 101. Worse still, the Indonesian pirates adopted the modus operandi of Somali pirates, firing upon steaming vessels, hijacking and taking hostages for ransom, rather than boarding berthed or anchored vessels and stealing money, supplies and portable cargoes at knifepoint. In the absence of naval vessels guarding against Southeast Asia piracy, opportunistic pirates apparently plundered.
In addition, Somalia’s piracy turnaround may be attributed to several factors: NATO- and European Union-backed naval ports, ships hiring onboard riflemen and, perhaps more importantly, a new Somali government working to stabilize its lawless coast.
Declining catches and therefore reduced profits mean fishers and fishing companies seek out cost-cutting methods. Forced labor often involves desperate people facing poverty being sold, smuggled or trafficked into working for long periods at sea. Because fishing vessels operate farther offshore, the slave labor aboard these vessels is difficult to monitor, just as IUU fishing is largely hidden in these areas. Although it was abolished in the 19th century, slavery continues to occur in developing and developed countries in various forms. The U.N.’s International Labour Organization estimates that nearly 21 million people are victims of forced labor — with 11.4 million estimated to be women and girls and 9.5 million estimated to be men and boys. Modern-day slavery involves restricted movement, control of personal belongings and lack of fully informed consent.
Forced labor at sea involves workers who have no choices, no means of escape and must work under extreme conditions for little or no pay; this essentially amounts to slavery. These cases often involve children, men and women who have moved within and across borders and who, as part of the journey and/or at the end point, are exploited and abused. As well as being cheap labor, children are forced into work in the fishing industry all over the world because their fingers can retrieve fish from smaller nets.
In addition, vulnerable women are trafficked to “service” the men onboard vessels, while men are forced to work in appalling and dangerous conditions with little sleep and minimal food. They often face being thrown overboard if they become ill or injured.
In 1999, the International Labour Organization began addressing forced labor in the fishing industry, specifically reporting on Indonesian fisheries. The resulting report reveals that some forced workers onboard fishing vessels are trafficked — recruited and transported by coercive means for exploitation — while others are smuggled and moved across borders for profit. In this way, smugglers also skirt and effectively undermine migration laws.
While early attention was paid to forced labor in the sex industry for women and forced labor in the agricultural and hospitality industries for men, only recently has the focus expanded to the fisheries sector. Increasingly, governments are realizing the need to strengthen border control and law enforcement to help mitigate factors that enable and encourage maritime crimes.
Legal control measures
The law and policy framework for controlling fishing, maritime security and labor issues is complex, with rules and regulations contained in a number of international and regional instruments. Despite these laws, monitoring and enforcement are leading challenges for effective marine governance. The vastness of the Indo-Asia-Pacific region further hinders effective oceanic surveillance. Littoral states struggling with poor governance and limited resources typically prioritize essential services such as education and health care ahead of monitoring their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. Lack of policing has led to overfishing (fishing beyond authorized catch limits) and IUU fishing, aided by technologies focused purely on increasing fishing yield. With depleting fish stocks, fishers (legitimate and otherwise) operate farther from shore often in other countries’ territorial waters or on the high seas — a place of freedom exempt from inspections and monitoring.
There is clearly a significant role for regional organizations in addressing the critical issue of monitoring and enforcement. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is highly organized and coordinates regulatory cooperation for its members. However, it faces challenges in effectiveness. Developing a one-size-fits-all legal framework for the ASEAN member states remains an elusive goal. While all 10 ASEAN members have equal membership, their cooperation, contribution and return is unequal. Given this diversity, one of the major challenges for ASEAN is that one member’s crooks are another member’s nationals.
Criminal activities within the Pacific islands are far less understood than those occurring in the Asian region. The Pacific islands are themselves a suitable base for criminal organizations, given their central location between Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the U.S. The vastness of the region and transnational links help organized criminals evade law enforcement. Porous borders and weak border control render much of the Pacific (except Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States) unprotected and open to illegal activities.
Ship rider agreements between the U.S. and Pacific nations such as the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu can be valuable in bridging the capacity and capability gap by providing patrols by the U.S. Coast Guard on open waters. Ship rider operations typically occur when U.S. vessels embark foreign nation law enforcement officials for the purpose of enforcing laws in their EEZ. The U.S. Coast Guard, using ship rider agreements, patrols the Pacific approximately 70 days each year.
Enhanced U.S. Coast Guard ship rider agreements negotiated with Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia strengthen enforcement of local laws. Expanding enhanced bilateral ship rider agreements with other Pacific islands or multilateral agreements would introduce a layer of regulatory control to protect against IUU fishing and other maritime crimes.
Strengthening regulations and enforcement
Focusing on the issue of fisheries, regulatory control involves a complex combination of international and domestic laws. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) establishes that each country has sovereign rights over its territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) from shore. A nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) lies between 12 and 200 nautical miles, and coastal states can explore and exploit living marine resources up to a total allowable catch, based on an assessment of the maximum sustainable yield. The high seas exist beyond the EEZs, in which no country owns or controls the resources. UNCLOS requires that state parties cooperate to manage high seas fisheries, mainly through regional bodies and agreements, with only broad state obligations to protect and preserve the marine environment.
Intentionally vague, UNCLOS encourages regional bodies to determine and regulate living resources as deemed appropriate for the region. Regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) develop conservation management measures to limit or restrict catches of certain stocks, but RFMOs do not address organized crime, forced labor or other maritime crimes. According to one RFMO, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, IUU fishing costs U.S. $1.5 billion annually within its region.
Monitoring and enforcement are integral to effective governance; however, the RFMO may only police activities occurring within its jurisdiction, and realistically has significant control only over its own members. The absence of comprehensive and cohesive global regulatory frameworks for fisheries governance has not assisted sustainable management where complex factors are at play.
In addressing the intersection of IUU fishing, maritime crime and forced labor, a plethora of relevant international institutions exist and legal frameworks apply. However, none comprehensively addresses these issues and their interconnections. The combination of cheap or no-cost labor, limited capability and capacity to police IUU fishing, and the inability of those in the supply chain (and consumers) to distinguish legitimate from illegal products in the marketplace renders the issue an ongoing challenge.
Combining direct and indirect policing can guard against maritime crimes within an at-risk region. Direct policing may involve increasing the presence of coast guards to identify and track suspect vessels for interdiction. Undertaking covert operations, involving authorities acting undercover as fishers, may increase access to vessels. However, this form of intense policing is unsustainable in the long term, particularly in a region with limited resources and more pressing priorities. The effectiveness of direct policing depends on a constant presence and the expectation of all vessels being boarded and inspected. Indirect policing through technology and advanced vessel identification may provide a means to overcome the challenges of monitoring and surveilling vast oceanic regions.
Embracing emerging technologies also assists by increasing awareness of activities occurring at sea to better inform police, governments and fishers. For example, Palau tested the use of unmanned drones to detect and deter illegal fishers operating in its EEZ. Drones are able to isolate the location of a vessel operating illegally as well as its specific International Maritime Organization-issued identification number (for vessels of 100 gross-tonnage and above) and continuous synoptic records (for vessels of 500 gross-tonnage and above).
Autonomous underwater vehicles provide additional guardianship operating as a platform for sensors or as a tool to gather evidence. Other technologies include radar and satellites to monitor vessels remotely. Microwave heat differentials can determine warm from frozen cargo to detect fishery (and human trafficking) infringement.
These tools transmit data to allow authorities to intercept vessels at sea or at port and potentially provide evidence for use in court. These measures may also be effective for information sharing among RFMOs, coast guards and other stakeholders.
Controlling maritime crimes, including illegal fishing, in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region necessitates the adoption and implementation of best-practice governance. Lucrative fishing grounds are accessible illegally. Strengthened government efforts will provide protection for them.
Consideration should also be given to peripheral risk factors on land and at sea that increase the likelihood of human trafficking and forced and low-cost labor. A necessary first step is to adopt relevant international conventions, and bi- and multilateral agreements supporting policymakers and regulatory agencies to develop a toolkit for enforcement.
Improved and enhanced policing capabilities can be achieved by combining technology and regional cooperative arrangements to remotely monitor the vast region and reduce opportunities for clandestine offending. Finally, and importantly, increasing transparency about maritime crimes among consumers, in particular IUU fishing, is essential to encourage informed choices and sustainable purchases.
Data Support the need to remain vigilant against piracy
A total of 200 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships (187 actual incidents and 13 attempted incidents) were reported to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre in 2015. Of these, 11 were acts of piracy and 189 were incidents of armed robbery against ships. Compared to 2014, there has been a 7 percent increase in the total number of incidents in 2015.
Incidents reported in 2015 were less severe compared to 2014, with fewer incidents involving more than nine perpetrators, fewer cases involving perpetrators who were armed, and fewer incidents with reports that crew was threatened, held hostage or assaulted.
Continuous zeal among the littoral states and cooperation between the authorities and shipping industry demonstrates the determination and commitment in clamping down on this illegal maritime crime. With a decline in the number of incidents reported in the last quarter of 2015, and more perpetrators being put to task, more needs to be done to decrease the number of incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in Asia.