Interpol Sets Sail to Combat Illegal Fisheries

The world's police force turns its sights on illegal fishing operations.

What do you think of when you think of fishing?

Is it tourists hauling in a marlin? The crew of the crab boats in The Deadliest Catch? A "super trawler" heading for Australia only to be turned back by public protest and government intervention?

Chances are that when you think of fishing, you don't think of drug running or human trafficking. And of course, in most cases, there's no reason to do so. But when those fisheries are operating in the shadows and outside the law, it's a different matter.

In the 90 years since it was founded, Interpol – the International Criminal Police Organization – has become known for its cross-border work in combating the trafficking of drugs and of humans, financial crimes, organized crime syndicates, and art theft, among many other areas. On Tuesday it announced that, for the first time, it will take on a new challenge: illegal fishing.

ANALYSIS: Piracy on the Pacific

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a "major threat to the sustainability of the world's fisheries," causing annual financial losses of up to $23.5 billion worldwide and accounting for up to 20 percent of all of the wild marine fish caught globally. In some regions of the world the situation is even worse. Off the coast of West Africa for example, Pew reports that as much as 40 percent of the catch is illegal. As well as depriving local small-scale fishermen of important income, illegal practices can have other impacts; at least some Somali pirates are believed to have been fishers who watched their fish stocks become plundered by fleets from around the world.

Not all IUU fishing is illegal. Some – such as fishing on the high seas, outside countries' exclusive economic zones, is simply unregulated. But the truly illegal fishers may fish without licenses or with fake papers, falsify their catches, fish in restricted or prohibited areas, use banned or otherwise destructive fishing gear, falsify their logs, or 'launder' their catches. It is this fishing that Interpol is now focused on intercepting.

In concert with Pew and the Government of Norway, Interpol launched Project SCALE at the first International Fisheries Enforcement Conference, which opened today in Lyon, France. Among other things, the project will aim to

ANALYSIS: Somali Pirates Letting Illegal Fishing Run Wild?

For environmentalists and fisheries managers, illegal fishing is a serious problem because of its impact on fish stocks and marine environments, as well as on fishing communities. But as a United Nations report recently underlined, because illegal fishing vessels operate in the shadows, they are frequently used to commit other crimes, including trafficking in drugs and people.

All of which makes Interpol – which already has an Environmental Crime Committee that focuses on illegal trade in ivory, poaching of endangered big cats and illegal logging around the world – a perfect fit for the battle against illegal fisheries.

"Project SCALE is a natural extension of INTERPOL's efforts to safeguard species and habitat through effective enforcement," said David Higgins, manager of INTERPOL's Environmental Crime Program, in a press release. "With INTERPOL's network, capacity building and intelligence-led enforcement support, we will contribute to a more focused and coordinated global effort to combat transnational and organized fisheries crime."