Fishing for a solution to catch marine life smugglers



The government needs to deal with the poaching and smuggling of vital natural, economic and food resources as organised crime, but insufficient attention is given to law enforcement.

Although marine living resources are strictly regulated by law, the implementation, administration and enforcement falls woefully short. This is evidenced by large-scale confiscations and statistics relating to imports into market states.

There are too few fisheries control officers and the understaffed South African Police Service (SAPS) does not see it as a priority crime. The penalties for fisheries crimes, including the illegal catching and possession of fish and seafood species, and the operating of illegal storing facilities and fish processing facilities are, by and large, not a deterrent.

To date, many fisheries crimes, or what is officially referred to as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, have been dealt with as a fisheries management issue, which results in less severe penalties regarded by transgressors as little more than a rap on the knuckles.

This has contributed to poaching with impunity in some parts of the country, and the public has had enough of the poor response by the government and the police in apprehending the syndicate criminals operating at large. There appears to be a lack of political will at the highest levels of government to implement the strategies required, which would include significantly increasing the fisheries patrol boats in our exclusive economic zone and far more successful convictions.

FishFORCE has been advocating that fisheries crimes be addressed as a priority transnational crime and prosecuted as organised crime and racketeering under the Prevention of Organised Crime Act, with severe penalties of 25 years to life.

Interpol is advocating the same, given that large-scale fisheries crimes are multi-crimes with a well-established connection between fisheries crimes and drugs, arms, cigarettes, rhino horn, counterfeit goods, human trafficking and forced labour, fraud, forgery, corruption, money laundering, and tax and customs evasion.

It is encouraging that some of our courts are responding to the seriousness of these crimes. Three recent major abalone (perlemoen) racketeering cases in South Africa — State vs Blignaut; State vs Miller and State vs Brown — have been prosecuted as organised crime, with sentences of 18 to 20 years. In State vs Blignaut, for example, the court said the scale of this enterprise’s activities extended far beyond provincial boundaries.

An analysis of trade routes by the international wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic suggests that between 2000 and 2016, up to 43% of the illegally harvested abalone was traded through a number of sub-Saharan countries to Hong Kong and 21% originated from Mozambique, 7% from Zimbabwe and 6% from Zambia. The abalone is transported from South Africa into these countries where it is “legalised” and exported to Hong Kong.

Research conducted by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that Southern and East Africa loses in the region of R12.2-billion to illegal and unreported fishing every year. It further estimates that 85% of fish stocks worldwide are now fully exploited, and illegal fishing is one of the main contributors.

Overall, a considerable upscaling of governance and management of South Africa’s living marine resources is required and FishFORCE is seeking to collaborate with the department of environment, forestry and fisheries, the police, the South African Defence Force, the South African Revenue Services, the National Prosecuting Authority and the department of home affairs to develop a combined offensive.

FishFORCE research associates and postgraduate students are conducting research that includes the analysis and evaluation of law enforcement gaps, the development of national and international law and policies to promote collaboration in cross-border and international fisheries crime control, and effective sentencing.

FishFORCE is training fisheries control officers, police officers and prosecutors in South Africa and Kenya, and along the East African coastline and Western Indian Ocean where it is opening FishFORCE academies in Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles. There is already an academy in Kenya. FishFORCE has also trained port security officers and their supervisors and managers in South African ports.

The training developed and delivered by FishFORCE is linked to formal qualifications, such as a higher certificate in criminal justice and a diploma in law enforcement, thus providing an articulation pathway for trainees. This was specifically developed to promote fisheries law enforcement as a career choice.

FishFORCE is also assisting with training and research along the Indian Ocean Rim, including countries such as Indonesia, because organised crime in the fisheries environment knows no borders, and neither do marine living resources.

Hennie van As is an advocate and public law professor at Nelson Mandela University, and the head of FishFORCE, established in 2016 at the university.

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Hennie Van As
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