Wildlife Justice Commission at IUCN Congress: protecting ocean ecosystems with intelligence analysis

Fisheries crime is a complex, transnational issue. From illegal, unreported, and unregulated practices (“IUU fishing”) to converging crimes of financial fraud, corruption, murder and human trafficking, our oceans lie exposed to criminal networks preying on vulnerable species and depleted fish stocks. This week, the Wildlife Justice Commission is attending the IUCN World Conservation Congress to present and discuss the potential impacts of intelligence led investigations in the fight to protect our oceans by applying proven law enforcement methodology to address transnational organised crime networks.

Postponed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s IUCN World Conservation Congress is a hybrid event, taking place from 3 – 11 September online and in person. The Wildlife Justice Commission was honoured to speak today about criminal trends in illegal fishing, and intelligence-led strategies to address it. Stephen Carmody, our Director of Programs, delivered an engaging presentation at the Congress, which you can watch here.

By applying the same techniques used to great success in our fight against wildlife trafficking, intelligence led investigations  – and the Wildlife Justice Commission – can play a valuable role in helping law enforcement agencies tackle IUU fishing and protecting vulnerable marine species.  

Why focus on fisheries?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, global fish stocks are nearly 90% fully exploited, over-exploited, or depleted. Ocean biodiversity is rapidly decreasing, with more and more marine species listed as endangered. Sharks, for example, a top predator in the ocean ecosystem, are being wiped out at a rate of at least 73 million per year by the unregulated shark fin trade. 143 of 500 shark species are currently endangered or vulnerable. From whales and dolphins to seahorses and abalone, species at every level of the marine food chain are under extreme pressure. 

Presentation at IUCN Congress on fisheries crime

There is often large demand for such species in Asia. They are also high-value products, enticing organised criminal networks to facilitate market demands. This leads to opportunities for crime convergence – as in the case of the South African abalone. The illegal trade of this species has known cases of convergence with drug trafficking. 

Although many marine species are protected by CITES regulations and national export bans poor legal frameworks, systematic corruption, and weak governance across both public and private sectors enables fisheries crime to flourish. It is this backdrop that enables transnational organised crime networks to exploit such low-risk, high-reward opportunities. 

It is our mission to disrupt and dismantle the criminal networks profiting from the destruction of the natural world. This doesn’t stop at tackling ivory or rhino horn trafficking; it is clear that fisheries are particularly vulnerable to organised crime. In 2016, organised criminal activities accounted for nearly a quarter of the landed value of fisheries catches globally. By replicating our successful intelligence-led approach towards fighting wildlife crime, there is potential to create significant impact on fisheries crime. 

Applying intelligence analysis to fisheries crime

To demonstrate the value of intelligence analysis, Carmody presented a case study on the illegal clam shell trade to the IUCN Congress. Giant clams are the largest shellfish in the world. They help to build coral reefs, provide food and shelter for other reef creatures, filter water, and are a valuable source of protein for many coastal communities.

In 2021, the Wildlife Justice Commission was made aware of a series of large seizures of giant clam shells in the Philippines. Since 2019, there have been 13 seizures of giant clams there, totalling more than 120,000 tonnes and valued at an estimated USD 83 million. The scale of these activities indicates the possible involvement of organised crime; collecting and transporting such vast quantities of product would require significant organisation, logistics, and finances. There have been very few seizures of giant clams outside of the Philippines, suggesting the trade is largely conducted with impunity.

Fisheries crime - giant clam shells seized
Philippine Coast Guard personnel inspecting seized giant clam shells, weighing a total of 200 tonnes and worth about US$25 million. Photo: AFP

Using open-source information, the Wildlife Justice Commission’s intelligence analysis team has been researching the possible factors driving this surge in the illegal clam shell trade. Our research identified a nexus with organised crime, the potential use of clam shells as ivory substitutes in the Chinese carving industry, and several key intelligence gaps that could yield further valuable information

An intelligence led law enforcement response will be necessary to dig deeper into the supply chain, the structure of the criminal networks involved, and individuals driving the trade. The Wildlife Justice Commission will continue to gather intelligence and conduct its own analysis and investigations to assess further developments in this trade.

How can intelligence analysis – and the Wildlife Justice Commission – help?

An intelligence led law enforcement response is needed to address the increasing criminal pressures on our oceans. Intelligence analysis is a proven force multiplier when scarce resources are needed to be focussed in the right areas. It is vital for identifying trends, mapping supply chains and criminal networks, identifying individuals that represent the greatest threat and weaknesses in the supply chain which present investigative opportunities. However, it is currently under-funded and rarely utilised against fisheries or wildlife crime. 

We believe that intelligence led investigations can play a key strategic role in protecting ocean health. By applying these tools to the problem of fisheries crime, law enforcement can focus on the most pressing criminal threats and protect threatened marine life before it’s too late.  

We would like to thank the IUCN WCC for the opportunity to speak about these issues, and to the attendees for their participation. As the Wildlife Justice Commission steps up our work safeguarding ocean health and marine biodiversity, we look forward to building on the foundations laid during this Congress.