In poor coastal villages in Latin America and the Caribbean, fishers are entering the drug trade. The harvesting of sharks as bycatch in Ecuador and Costa Rica, countries known for conservation, is devastating threatened populations. And vessels in China’s distant-water fleet are turning off their transponders to plunder South America’s waters.
Experts at a panel discussion hosted by InSight Crime and the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS) at American University made clear that the consequences of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing are immediate and enormous across the region. IUU fishing damages livelihoods and marine ecosystems while facilitating other crimes, such as labor abuse and drug trafficking.
But all is not lost, said the experts, who presented ways to go after the perpetrators, increase enforcement capacity, and rein in bad actors. Initiatives for fishers who can no longer make a living at sea are also needed.
"The impact goes beyond the fishing industry," said Matthew Taylor, a professor of international studies at American University who collaborated with InSight Crime on a recently published working paper on IUU fishing in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Philippe Le Billon, a professor at the University of British Columbia, began the conference by highlighting a study he conducted on the connections between drug smuggling and fishing.
While acknowledging that data were limited, Le Billon explained that his study analyzed 292 known cases of vessels engaged in drug trafficking between 2010 and 2017. The findings, he said, show that “more and more small-scale fishermen are getting forced into” drug smuggling.
Paradoxically, small-scale fishers are susceptible to exploitation by drug traffickers because of the effects of IUU fishing practices, such as declining fish stocks and access to fishing grounds. The flow of drug money into local fisheries also can lead to "fishing overcapacity," Le Billon said.
Peter A. Murray, an advisor at the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM) Secretariat, a 17-nation organization that facilitates sustainable fishing in the region’s waters, agreed that fishing has increasingly become a vehicle for drug-related money laundering. One of the problems, Murray said, is that IUU fishing is often “treated as a regulatory issue and not as transnational organized crime.”
Three countries that are part of CRFM were featured in a recent investigation by InSight Crime and CLALS titled “Plundered Oceans: IUU Fishing in Central American and Caribbean Waters.” Reports in that investigation showed how Jamaica’s waters are being poached of lucrative marine life; how Guyana’s law enforcement capabilities extend to just a fraction of its waters; and how Suriname’s black trade in fishing licenses has created a raft of duplicate boats.
Murray acknowledged that the countries in the CRFM are in desperate need of financial assistance and capacity development to combat IUU fishing. But he pointed out that their efforts often go unnoticed. Despite limitations, he said, “our [member] states are working toward a range of remedies.”
Jorge Arturo Jiménez, the general director of the MarViva Foundation, an oceans conservation organization based in Costa Rica, highlighted the devastation wrought by illegal fishing gear, such as purse seine nets that produce massive bycatch, and illegal fishing practices, such as the use of explosives. Closed seasons are not respected, while overfishing creates a downward spiral that leads not only to depleted stocks but also to fishers struggling to earn a living, he said.
Making matters more difficult, he said, is the sheer lack of data.
"You don’t know how many people are fishing," Jiménez said, "and you don’t know what is being fished."
Concerns about shark-fin exports emerged in discussions about Costa Rica and Ecuador. Over the past five years, Costa Rica exported 455 metric tons of shark fins worth $25 million to Hong Kong, Jiménez told the conference.
Christina Cely, an environmental activist in Ecuador, said Ecuadorean vessels continue to land massive amounts of shark as bycatch, another focus of the "Plundered Oceans" investigation. Fishing for sharks is illegal in Ecuador, but fishermen may possess and sell sharks they catch incidentally. The legal loophole has turned the nation into one of the world's largest exporters of shark fins. Exports of shark fins increased from 90 metric tons in 2020 to 321 metric tons in 2021. Revenues came to $9.7 million in 2021, according to the country’s central bank.
"This is something that should not be a business," Cely said.
A major focus of the conversation centered on China’s large distant-water fishing fleet, which has come under scrutiny for its predatory practices off South America’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts. While the panelists agreed that they did not want to engage in China-bashing, they made clear that the fleet acts as a major IUU fishing offender, despite claims by the Chinese government that it is curbing such practices.
Milko Schvartzman, who investigates illegal fishing in Argentina and other countries, said the China-flagged vessels now start fishing squid off the south Atlantic sea shelf in early November, two months before the start of the season in Argentina.
"More vessels are starting earlier and increasing their fishing efforts,” he said. “The impact is very worrying."
Schvartzman also fingered Uruguay’s port of Montevideo for hosting vessels engaging in IUU fishing practices and other crimes, such as labor abuse. Part of the “Plundered Oceans” investigation that focused on South America revealed that the bodies of nearly 60 deceased fishing crewmembers were unloaded at the Montevideo port between 2013 and 2021.
"For many vessels, they have a nasty record and they keep working," he said.
Another report in the “Plundered Oceans” investigation looked at the Chinese fleet’s use of the Panama flag for reefer vessels, refrigerated cargo ships that shuttle tons of catch to shore and return with supplies, allowing the fleet to stay out to sea for months or even years. Panama was issued a “yellow card,” or warning, in 2019, by the European Union for being non-cooperative in the fight against IUU fishing.
Jiménez, of Costa Rica’s MarViva Foundation, said that Panama still has “a lot to be done” to get its yellow card retracted.
Joshua Goodman, a Latin America correspondent for the Associated Press based in Miami, described his 21-day voyage with the conservation group the Sea Sheperd to get a close look at the Chinese fleet. Goodman spoke about how this led to an investigation of a Chinese state-subsidized company that has had its vessels accused of illegal fishing and labor abuse practices. He spotted some of the company's vessels at sea.
Goodman advised colleagues on the panel to look at regional fishing management organizations, which set rules and regulate fishing activities for member countries. The South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO), he reported, failed to adopt a proposal by Ecuador and the European Union to have observers on board all its member countries’ ships by 2028. The groups often make major decisions, he said, behind closed doors. Latin American governments and the United States should take a more active role in these organizations.
The US, which is a major importer of seafood from China, wasn’t let off the hook either.
“The US has a big role to play here," said Goodman, "to get traceability from the sea to the store shelf.”