The world of marine criminal justice – on land and at sea

I recently had the honour of speaking at the United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon as the Executive Director of the Wildlife Justice Commission – specifically on Sustainable Development Goal 14. Our organisation focuses on disrupting and dismantling transnational organised criminal networks dealing in wildlife, timber, and fish, and it is clear to me that our perspective and approach can make a significant impact in the global effort to preserve our oceans.

Intelligence leads our work: we focus on the most vulnerable species and the most prolific offenders, in view of having a long and lasting impact on the environment. Given the undeniable impact of criminal networks on ocean biodiversity, a criminal justice approach is needed to help curb this phenomenon. For an effective implementation of SDG 14 and the protection of the ocean, combining development and criminal justice lenses is an impactful way forward.  

Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserving and Sustainably Using the Oceans

The UN’s SDG 14 is about conserving and sustainably using the ocean, sea, and marine resources for sustainable development. The Wildlife Justice Commission offers a criminal justice perspective on this issue; we specialise in tackling illegal activities – the “I” in IUU fishing (illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing).

Through this framing, we also examine the crime convergence of IUU fishing: it converges with issues such as human trafficking and drug smuggling, and enabling crimes like corruption, money laundering and fraud. These key facilitators of crime in the fisheries sector need to be incorporated as an essential part of discussions on implementing SDG 14.

The Wildlife Justice Commission’s work shows that the destruction of our environment and the trafficking of vulnerable species can be effectively tackled through anti-corruption efforts, strategic and properly resourced law enforcement, and by strengthening the rule of law.

The Wildlife Justice Commission Approach

When addressing fisheries crimes, the Wildlife Justice Commission implements the same strategy as we use for terrestrial wildlife crime: multi-year, intelligence-led investigations, using trusted law enforcement methodologies to disrupt and dismantle criminal networks. Some of the actors most responsible for the trafficking of marine species are based on land, orchestrating, corrupting, and connecting supply to demand. The Wildlife Justice Commission’s approach focuses on removing these land-based actors to have an impact at sea.

Ultimately, we aim to facilitate the arrests and successful prosecution of high-level traffickers involved in fisheries and wildlife crime. This will help change the “low risk, high reward” dynamic of trafficking vulnerable marine species, encouraging criminals to move away from this type of criminality and giving these species a chance to recover.

Species under threat: Sharks, Sea Cucumbers, Seahorses, and More

There are a variety of marine species being trafficked, all facilitated by transnational criminal networks. Quantifying the illegal trade in marine species as a whole is challenging, but it is known to occur globally and is expanding as demand increases.

Current illegal marine harvest levels are unsustainable and push species to the brink of extinction. This impacts the stability of all marine ecosystems – particularly in the case of apex predators, such as sharks.

Sharks act as ecosystem regulators, keeping the ocean resilient and healthy. However, they are excessively hunted and trafficked for both meat and fins. Of the 11 species most preferred for shark fin soup, 8 are endangered or critically endangered. Organised criminal groups play an important role in ensuring that shark fins gathered globally reach markets in Southeast Asia.

Sea cucumbers are on the opposite side of the predator spectrum, but international trafficking is challenging their chance of survival in the wild too. Sea cucumbers are consumed as a delicacy in East Asia and also for traditional Chinese medicines (TCM). From 2015 to 2020, authorities in Sri Lanka and India seized nearly 65 metric tons of sea cucumbers worth more than USD 2.8 million and arrested 502 people in connection with the attempted trafficking.

Another species the Wildlife Justice Commission currently focuses on is the seahorse. 37 million seahorses are caught each year, and the sale of dried seahorses for TCM accounts for approximately 95% of the global market. All seahorses are protected under CITES appendix 2, making their sale strictly controlled and if sold outside of these regulations illegal. However, demand continues to fuel international trafficking. 

There are numerous other marine species being trafficked to the brink of extinction, such as eels, corals, giant clams, abalone, and turtles. All play important roles in maintaining a healthy and functioning marine environment: urgent action is needed to protect them from IUU fishing.

Recommendations for the International Community

With all of this in mind, I would like to share the three recommendations I relayed to the UN Ocean Conference in terms of how we, as an international community, can effectively integrate this criminal justice approach to address the trafficking of marine species:

1. Adopt an intelligence-led approach: Enforcement agencies have limited resources. Intelligence gathering and analysis is required to make the most out of these limited resources. It acts as a force multiplier, strategically identifying the greatest criminal threat and allowing investigations to focus their efforts where they can have the biggest impact. 

2. Focus on the actors most responsible: To have a significant and lasting impact on the networks driving these crimes, it is essential to focus on high-level actors. These individuals often find themselves very distant from where the crime actually occurs, i.e., at sea. Intelligence-led investigations allow for the detection of these key players. 

3. Address crime convergence: Many of the tools relevant for addressing the trafficking of marine species are already at our disposal: parallel financial and corruption investigations, the use of specialised investigative techniques, and a greater use of intelligence analysis. However, relevant agencies lack the resources, expertise and capacity needed. There is frequent convergence with human trafficking, drug trafficking, corruption, fraud, and money laundering, as well as other forms of environmental crime. By stressing the convergence of fisheries crime with other forms of serious organised crime, we can increase its political prioritization.

Protecting our oceans is a criminal justice issue as well as a conservation one. That lens is needed to unlock the right tools to curb illegal fishing. Please, join me in this fight against wildlife crime and support the work of the Wildlife Justice Commission: stay up to date on our latest news and subscribe to our newsletter.