Is 1 in 4 fish stolen in Africa?

From the report of the First Fisheries crime symposium

From the report of the First Fisheries crime symposium

IUU fishing has become one of the main concerns for a number of organisations working on fisheries, including in developing countries. At the end of last year, the Norwegian government co-hosted the first expert meeting on fisheries crime, held in Cape Town. The report of this “fisheries crime symposium” described IUU fishing in Africa costs 1 billion a year, meaning “1 in 4 fish is stolen”. And it is highly organised groups that cause the most harmful forms of fisheries crime, often with links to other organised crime. Fisheries crime was described as:

Highly organised, well-financed transnational criminal activities…linked to a wider black-economy, a parallel economic system…frequently linked to complex webs of organised crime. Countries are being deprived of taxes, citizens of jobs, food and income, and fisheries and environments are being destroyed. In addition, certain networks within the fisheries sector associate with other crime such as drugs, trafficking, wildlife smuggling and fraud. 

There are now demands for drastically strengthening law enforcement, for which more resources and development aid is needed. The required effort to defeat the criminals is increasingly depicted as a war, just as we have heard the need for launching a war against drugs, people smuggling or terrorism. Yet is the information being used to understand the extent, nature and impact of IUU fishing reliable and pertinent? 

A recent study in the Pacific, published by MRAG, casts some doubt. It was not quite so alarming about the impact of IUU fishing, and it found no evidence of a conspiracy of criminal groups. The study estimated that IUU fishing for tuna, shark and billfish amounted to about $600 million a year. Almost all illegal fishing was caused by licensed vessels, and seemed quite widespread in the sector. And while the figure of $600 million seems a lot, the author’s of the report explain the economic implications of IUU for Pacific Island States are ambiguous.

Based on the most recent estimates of profitability in the WCPO purse seine and longline sectors, we estimate the rent associated with IUU is around $152.67m. Nevertheless, because of the nature of access arrangements in Pacific tuna fisheries, it is possible that much of the rent associated with IUU activity is captured anyway, and this estimate either overstates, or is at least at the upper end of, actual impacts on the real economy.

Indeed, the report reveals that significant forms of IUU fishing, such as misreporting data on catches, cause no loss of income to the coastal state, and other forms of crime can contribute positively to government wealth. Certainly it would be a mistake to imagine eliminating IUU would simply result in increasing the potential wealth from fisheries by $600 million. But this error in thinking is evident in the way statistics are used to describe IUU in Africa. The implications for fisheries policy debates are important. 

Hopefully a new study being undertaken now by the African Union, with funding by the EU, can further our understanding of the problem. According to the terms of reference for the consultants, the study will produce a comprehensive document on the economic, social and environmental impacts of IUU on the continent. This is tremendously important as reliable information about the impacts of IUU are needed to support policy making and guide the allocation of scarce funds. However, the prospects of this new study to deepen our knowledge look slim. The consultants have chosen to gather information by using a basic questionnaire (with multiple answers) sent out to a random group of people working on fisheries. How they expect this data will be useful, other than confirming perceptions about crime, is difficult to know. One hopes the questionnaire is not given too much focus in their study, and the authors can provide us with a more reliable insight using other methods.

Why Africa does not lose 1 billion from IUU fishing

The most influential study on IUU fishing in Africa was commissioned by the UK government and also authored by MRAG. It was published in 2005 and claimed IUU was valued at $0.9 billion dollars (although nearly always rounded up to 1 billion when referenced by others). The method to arrive at this figure relied on estimates of illegal fishing in 8 countries (including one that was not even in Africa - Papua New Guinea). The data was provided by just one anonymous source in each country. There was no explanation of how these people would have such a reliable insight into rates of crime among vessels at sea, many of which are not visible from shore and are subject to minimal state monitoring.

This estimate of the scale of IUU fishing from the 8 countries was then extrapolated for all African coastal countries based on the finding that rates of illegal fishing in the 8 countries closely correlated with their scores on international good governance indexes. So a formula was created, using the World Bank’s governance scores, to predict the amount of IUU fishing in countries where MRAG didn’t commission case study work.

The strength of their data for the 8 country case studies was far too weak to form a reliable prediction on IUU in other countries. But also the theory for this relationship between a country’s score on good governance was not established in any detail. There may well be a relationship, but it will be complex, and an alternative hypothesis is that very weak states probably license too many vessels and they might provide lax license arrangements. States with weak governance may have less illegal fishing but more harmful legal fishing.

While we can ponder the relationships between governance and illegal fishing, a more serious problem is that the single scores produced by these governance indexes are not only criticised for being unreliable and meaningless, but much of the data used for these governance indexes derive from rank ordering countries. This makes the scores unsuitable to predict economic data, for the simple reason that a country that scores 2 on a governance index does not have governance that is twice as good as a country that scores 1. An anomaly of using this method was that 4 countries in Africa returned results that indicated they had no illegal fishing, Sao Tome and Principe, South Africa, Mauritius and Cape Verde.

The problem with the 2005 study was not just with its method of estimating the scale of IUU fishing. The study was extremely confusing when it came to understanding the costs. The authors regularly referred to the value of illegal fishing as a loss to African states, and ever since people have referred to the report as providing evidence that African states lose $1 billion a year from these crimes. As the authors explained:

The most obvious impact [of IUU] is direct loss of the value of the catches that could be taken by the coastal state if the IUU fishing was not taking place. Aside from the loss to GNP, actual revenue can accrue to the coastal state in the form of landings fees, licence fees, taxes and other levies which are payable by legal fishing operators. We have estimated…that at a minimum $0.9bn of IUU catch is taken from EEZs of various countries in the sub-Saharan Africa region, the majority of which are developing countries.

But the recent study from the Pacific describes well why measuring the value of fish obtained through illegal means and measuring the resulting economic costs for coastal states are two quite different things. In the case of the Pacific, the most valuable forms of crime were misreporting catches and fishing with prohibited methods (there was very little unlicensed fishing). These crimes can result in extra catches for the vessels, but because vessels do not pay per fish caught, reducing these offences would not increase government income.

So, reducing many forms of IUU fishing would not result in producing economic gains for the state (commensurate with the value of IUU fishing). For the most part it would mean lower profits for fishing companies, which in turn may lower the available rents for governments, assuming that fees charged by governments are influenced by what companies can afford to pay. In the short term, at least, reducing certain types of IUU fishing could have negative economic consequences for coastal states, as well as being a very costly endeavour. 

To better understand the economic impacts of illegal fishing we must also appreciate that profits derived from illegal fishing are not simply being removed from the legal economy. Of course some fish caught illegally may be exported to non-African consumer markets, thereby denying national companies and markets fish supplies, to the benefit of foreign companies and countries. But such tendencies have long been a concern about the way the legal sector works, which makes distinguishing the relative costs of crime quite tricky. There are also numerous examples where illegally caught fish are processed and consumed in African markets. Illegal fishing in Africa does not simply involve stealing fish from the continent; it can also contribute to the productive sector, providing income, jobs and fish to eat. But this is rarely factored into the analysis of the costs of IUU fishing.

In South Africa, WWF published a study in 2014 on the value of illegal poaching of lobsters and abalone, which claimed the country was losing 4 million Rand a year. There are legitimate concerns about the ecological impact of this, but as the poachers are mostly South Africans from poor coastal communities, the economic impact of poaching is to add 4 million Rand to the economy every year, as well as provide income for many poor people. Illegal fishing, like many other economic crimes (such as the drugs trade), should be accounted for as part of a country’s GDP (or GNP), not discounted from it. Of course, some profits from illegal fishing may not end up being taxed (although some will be), and the lion’s share of the profits may be realised in foreign jurisdictions, or off-shore. But these problems also happen to profits derived from the legal sector as well.

Is 1 in 4 fish stolen?

Another influential finding from the 2005 study is that IUU fishing accounts for a surprising amount of the total fish caught in Africa. To estimate the scale of this, the study compared the figure of $0.9 billion to official catches reported to the FAO. This method revealed the value of IUU fishing equated to about 19% of the value of legal fish products. This may be why some fisheries experts claim 1 in 4 fish is stolen in Africa? 

However, the 2005 study was valuing fish caught illegally among many industrial fishing fleets operating in Africa who don’t land their catches locally, so their catch data is reported as being from their flag state. FAO country data doesn’t reflect what is being caught in African waters. Indeed, for many African countries, given that industrial fisheries are not able or willing to land locally, data submitted to the FAO by coastal states comprises mostly estimates about the small-scale sector and inland fisheries, which are two sectors the MRAG study did not include in their research. Using official country data to contrast with their data on IUU has grossly distorted the picture about the scale of illegal fishing on the continent. We do not know if the outcome is to exaggerate or to underestimate. But certainly there is no robust data that shows 1 in 4 fish is stolen from Africa.

And the statement that 1 in 4 fish is stolen perpetuates a simplistic distinction between the impacts of legal and illegal fishing. The idea that a quarter of fish are stolen suggests all is OK with the other three quarters. We can return to the study of IUU fishing in the Pacific to see why this is problematic. Here the largest single source of illegal fishing by value was purse seine boats fishing with Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) during the 4 months of the year when these are banned. However the Deputy Director of the Forum Fisheries Agency, Wez Norris, explained why these bans can be ineffective.

During those months you have very little bigeye being caught but one of the responses of the industry has been to fish heavily on FADs in the other eight months of the year so that’s reduced the effectiveness of the measure.

So, following the logic of much writing on IUU we can see that the fish caught with FADs during the 8 months would be seen as contributing to the legitimate wealth of the Pacific Islands - forming part of the economic value of the ocean - but the fish caught with FADs during the 4 months would be considered stolen; a loss to the economy. It is muddled thinking, particularly if the level of fishing and by-catch during the 8 months is far more than is desirable for sustainable fishing.   

How can the African Union’s study improve our thinking?

Although empirical claims on the economic costs of IUU fishing are unreliable, and in some ways we can see that they may exaggerate economic costs to African states, there are of course legitimate concerns about criminality in the sector. Perhaps most important of all is the potential for illegal fishing to lead to overfishing and undermine food security. We need to understand the extent of all these threats very carefully, bearing in mind that overfishing and unfair trade have been concerns about the nature of legal fishing in Africa for decades.   

But clearly research on IUU that relies heavily on ‘perceptions’ is not sufficient. That the AU is using a questionnaire to update information on IUU is therefore worrying. The Pacific Island study represented a much more rigorous attempt to collate information, but even there the authors relied on best estimates from the fishing authorities to fill in the gaps. There were no investigations or in-depth case study work, including interviews with those best placed to know about crime – the fishers themselves (as well as their lawyers, agents and insurance companies). This type of research, based on spending time speaking with people close to and involved in crime has been crucial to some of the most insightful studies on corporate or organised crime, and it regularly reveals how perceptions held by law enforcement agencies or the public about crime are often unreliable. No source of information is sufficient in isolation, yet we seem to rely almost exclusively on data about IUU fishing produced by those with a vested interest in fighting it: NGOs campaigning against IUU fishing, consultancy firms (such as MRAG) who provide services to governments to improve monitoring and compliance, and law enforcement agencies. 

Getting a more balanced insight into the nature and impact of illegal fishing is very important. Flawed data will distort policy making – potentially convincing governments and donor agencies to put a great deal of time and resources into something that may not be the most important to prioritise (why is there not more interest in addressing corruption, for example?). For the time being, because of the flawed data, we have no idea on the real costs of fisheries crime in Africa. Perhaps it is far more widespread than existing studies suggest (including in the small-scale sector) meaning a law enforcement approach is hardly likely to work. But equally it may not be, and the obsession with IUU fishing may be shifting blame, ultimately dumbing down our understanding about overfishing and unfair fisheries arrangements. And with escalating calls for harsher treatment for the criminals, it seems important to think about the implications for workers and small-scale fishers. Every other international war on crime tends to be an abject failure that causes a great deal of suffering for those who were never intended to be the target. A tough law enforcement approach may not be the best solution, particularly in countries that score poorly on the World Bank's governance indexes. But can the new study by the African Union consider this, or will it end up simply repeating the call for strengthening policing and punishments based on perceptions by fisheries crime experts?  

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