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UN urged to act on organized crime in global fishing industry

Today at the global UN Crime Congress in Doha, Qatar, The Black Fish has called on policy makers to urgently act on organized crime in the global fishing industry. Presenting a new report, commissioned by The Black Fish, in partnership with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, strong evidence was put forward that many types of illegal fishing, previously considered only a regulatory issue, in reality constitute a dangerous form of transnational organized crime.

Fishermen load tuna in Dakar, Senegal, bound for the European market. Image by Kukka Ranta

Illegal practices employed in the fishing industry can be considered forms of transnational crime and are increasingly associated with other criminal, violent and destructive practices. Illegal fishing is known to be connected to human trafficking, slave labour and drug smuggling.

Dr. Teale N. Phelps Bondaroff, lead author of the report and researcher with The Black Fish: “Illegal fishers launch multi-vessel fleets on lengthy voyages to all the corners of the globe. They employ sophisticated and coordinated strategies to launder money and fish, and evade taxes. Along the way they enable their activities through the violation of labour and environmental standards, corruption, bribery, violence and murder.”


The report calls on governments and international policy organisations to strengthen global regulations and create new domestic legislation to tackle organized fishing crime. Dramatic increases in punishments of offenders and significant enhancement of monitoring and enforcement are additional recommendations.

Dr. Teale N. Phelps Bondaroff: “Rather than fishers accidentally violating some regulations, we see systematic and highly coordinated efforts around the globe to violate fishing laws and regulations, putting the stability of marine ecosystems in serious jeopardy. Illegal fishing has become the new, lucrative type of transnational organized crime.”

More than 90% of the world’s fisheries are currently fully or over-exploited. Urgent and multilateral action is to be initiated to halt the growing multi-billion dollar illegal fish market.

The full report is available for download here

Illegal fishing observed in ‘sustainable’ Swedish fishery

This week a lobster fishery operating off the west coast of Sweden was granted a sustainable fishing label through the Marine Stewardship Council. However, only four months ago Citizen Inspectors of The Black Fish observed illegal fishing activities in the exact same fishery.

The fishery operates in the Kattegat, the area of sea between northern Denmark and Sweden and targets Norwegian lobster (also known as nephrops) with trawlers. The Kattegat is home to a number of important spawning areas for cod, which has been heavily overfished in the area over recent decades.

Cod is traditionally caught alongside lobster in some of the Kattegat trawl fisheries, continuing the negative impacts on the troubled species. To mitigate this impact, the Swedish authorities imposed new rules, forcing fishers to fit special grids in their trawl nets, allowing for the release of adult cod fish swimming into the net, while catching lobsters.

As part of its ongoing investigations into illegal fishing in European seas, the Citizen Inspector Network of The Black Fish carried out over 100 inspections in Swedish fishing ports last August and found multiple illegally modified trawl nets, which enable fishers to illegally catch cod fish.

One of the inspectors explains: “During the inspections we found multiple steel grids which weren’t properly attached to the trawl nets, allowing for an opening to be created underneath the grid, so cod could be caught. One net even used chains as weights to open up the net further, making the fitted grid totally useless.”

“On another occasion we observed fishers re-attaching their nets upon return to the port, presumably for the net to meet the requirements during a possible inspection by fisheries officials.”

Products from the nephrops fishery will now bear the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label for ‘sustainable fisheries’. The Black Fish notified the MSC about its findings but learned that the assessment period for the fisheries had already passed. Annual surveillance audits are carried out by the certification body but The Black Fish fears these will yield little result in uncovering illegal activities, in part because they are publicly announced before they take place.

Wietse van der Werf, International Director of The Black Fish: “Sustainability labels mean very little if certifiers are not digging deeper to find out what is really happening in fisheries. Surprise inspections and undercover investigators would be a good start.”

Van der Werf says The Black Fish is determined to get to the facts: “We will continue to build on our findings as with more evidence we stand a stronger case.” The photographic and video evidence collected by Citizen Inspectors will not be made public, pending its use in possible legal action.

The Black Fish appeals to anyone who might have further information about illegal activities in the Swedish nephrop fishery to come forward. Our legal team can be contacted at legal@theblackfish.org

New research queries illegal fishing as organised crime

Is illegal fishing a form of organised crime? In which circumstances should it be treated as such? What approaches are necessary to tackle it? These are some of the main questions driving new research carried out by The Black Fish in partnership with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, investigating the links between illegal fishing and organised crime.

A consultation draft of a new report on the issue was presented at an expert seminar on organised crime and sustainable development, held last week at the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the UN in New York.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) a major threat to marine life is illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing with annual global catch estimated at $10-30 billion (USD). In 2005 the FAO estimated that 75% of the world’s fish stocks were fully exploited, overexploited or depleted. In Europe, 85% of fish stocks are in trouble and roughly half of fish products traded through Europe is believed to have illegal origins.

“A comprehensive recognition of the various drivers behind illegal fishing is needed in order to find the right tools to stop transnational criminal organisations from destroying our oceans. This research plays a major role in that effort.” said Wietse van der Werf, International Director at The Black Fish.

The upcoming report, which is set to be published in April, will highlight how the highly organised nature of illegal fishing operations justify treating this activity as a form of organized crime. Illegal fishing is also highly transnational in its scope and is supported by a wide range of illicit activity, including money and fish laundering, tax evasion, fraud, corruption, bribary and violence. Furthermore, illegal fishing operations have also been found to be linked to other forms of organised crime, including drug smuggling, human trafficking and forced labour.

Van der Werf: “Our work is uncovering some shocking facts about the dark side of the fishing industry. Case studies focused on different forms of transnational fishing crime have come from all over the world, including Europe and the US.”

Last week’s seminar brought together law enforcement and development specialists to discuss how organised crime obstructs good implementation of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. Mark Shaw, one of the founders of the Global Initiative talked about the need for the international community to act fast.

“Lack of cooperation was one of the main reasons to start this debate”, said Shaw on the topic, which was recently highlighted at the UN level. “The real challenge is how to make progress in multiple sectors. The debate is just starting and there is a lot of work to be done.”

New Zealand Navy Confronts Illegal Fishing

Three days ago the New Zealand navy intercepted two ships illegally fishing in the Southern Ocean. These ships, the Songhua and the Kunlun, are flagged out of Equatorial Guinea, but appear to have links to a Spanish organized crime syndicate. Yesterday the New Zealand Herald reported that a third ship, the Yongding, has also been intercepted. All three ships have been documented using banned fishing methods. The ensuing situation proves a strong example of the illegal overfishing crisis currently facing the world’s oceans.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully has stated that the three ships claimed they are not a group, but since they have been operating alongside each other it strongly suggests that they are part of an illegal fishing syndicate. The Songhua and the Kunlun have been linked to Spanish-based syndicate Vidal Armadores SA, and are also on an illegal fishing blacklist created by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

New Zealand has contacted Equatorial Guinea for permission to board the ships since they are in international waters, and at the time this is being written are attempting to board. The latest reports indicate that the fishing vessels’ crews are uncooperative and deterring a successful boarding by Navy personnel. While waiting for permission the three ships continued to brazenly and illegally pull Patagonian toothfish out of the ocean under the watch of the New Zealand navy.

“The fact that these vessels aren’t even afraid to cease their poaching activities in front of the presence of navy vessels indicates that penalties are not strong enough; where is the deterrent?” said Wietse van der Werf, International Director of The Black Fish. “The Patagonian toothfish is one of the most valuable fish on the market, without effective law enforcement we will continue to see this kind of poaching, not just in the Southern Ocean but with many species all around the world.”

The vessels are using flags of convenience, the practice of registering a ship in a country other than that of the owners, to avoid regulations or expenses associated with the owner’s country, in this case Spain.

The Black Fish sees a clear responsibility on the government of Spain to act accordingly. “Illegal fishing is by its nature a transnational issue,” added van der Werf. “Countries are going to need to cooperate and step up when they know their countries are involved in fisheries crimes, even if that crime is taking place somewhere on the high seas.”

This incident further demonstrates the links between organized crime and illegal fishing, a link which is often overlooked but which The Black Fish is seeking to bring greater attention to.

In the EU The Black Fish is training volunteers as part of it’s Citizen Inspectors Network which sees ordinary citizens conducting inspections and gathering evidence of illegality in European ports and waters. “This is a role that governments should be playing, but in their absence, citizens are ready to stand up for the oceans.”

The Black Fish commends the Royal New Zealand Navy and in particular the crew members onboard the patrol vessel HMNZS Wellington for their efforts to halt the illegal fishing activities.

The Black Fish confiscates illegal Fish Aggregating Devices

The Black Fish has initiated the removal of illegal Fish Aggregating Devices, better known as FADs, from an area in the Tyrrhenian Sea, approximately 30 miles north of Sicily. The devices, which are deployed to assist fishermen to attract schools of dolphinfish, are deployed illegally and are creating a hazard for other marine wildlife, including turtles, sharks and sunfish. Over the last two months The Black Fish ran a series of patrols in the Thyrrenian Sea and identified close to 100 illegal FADs in a relatively small area of sea.

FADs are responsible for high levels of bycatch and readily inflict cruelty on endangered turtles, sharks and sunfish, which are often found entangled in the FADs. Furthermore, the FAD fishing season in the region has expanded over the years and now starts earlier, resulting in high volume catches of smaller juvenile yellowtail. Additionally the FADs are generally left out at sea at the ending of the season, becoming ocean trash and forming a navigational hazard to shipping.

Stefano Rea, who has helped coordinate the work on the FAD issue: “These devices are causing havoc in the seas. They are bad for fish, for many other animals and they enormous amounts of waste. On top of that they are entirely illegal. They might seem small and harmless but indications are there are thousands of them deployed in the region. They simply need to be removed.”

The FADs rely on the need for fish to seek shade under objects in the open sea, creating a safe place for the fish to congregate. Purse seine nets are then used to haul in all the fish in the surrounding area in a single catch. The FAD devices are constructed by attaching palm leaves, tied with fishing line or string, to other floating bodies, such as cans, PVC bottles or old chemical containers. The FADs are anchored to weights on the sea bed by use of fishing lines. EU rules have been implemented to regulate FAD use but none of the FADs located by The Black Fish were in compliance.

Support our FAD patrols. Contribute to our fuel costs by making a donation.

The Black Fish signs historic agreement with Italian Coastguard

As of today, The Black Fish and the Italian Coastguard will combine resources and share intelligence to combat illegal fishing practices in the Mediterranean Sea. An historic agreement, which was signed at a ceremony in Messina, Sicily, will enable the two organisations to work in direct partnership to combat illegal fishing practices.

The agreement details how the organisations will share evidence and intelligence, as well as work towards a more structured cooperation to further enforcement of fisheries regulations. Evidence submitted to the Italian Coastguard over the last six months has laid the foundation for the new cooperation.

Captain Samiani of the Messina section of the Italian Coastguard: “We have set out today on a new collaboration, based on our positive experiences of working with The Black Fish to date. We want to continue this partnership within our region and see how, in future, we can expand it to our command structure nationwide.”

Wietse van der Werf of The Black Fish: “The Mediterranean Sea is a hotbed of illegal fishing activity, often with involvement from organised crime organisations. We have investigated and exposed fishing crime in this region over the last years and are very pleased to announce that thanks to this new cooperation with the Italian Coastguard, the evidence collected by our Citizen Inspectors can now aid enforcement directly. Working in partnership with one of Europe’s largest maritime enforcement organisations is a big deal for conservation.”

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New fund supports conservationists facing personal hardship

A new fund has been established to support conservationists that face personal hardship. The initiative, set up by The Black Fish, aims support those who are active in marine conservation work, when help is most needed.

Wietse van der Werf, founder of The Black Fish: “This is all about supporting those who have made the marine conservation movement strong. People often volunteer for organisations for years, with little reward. We believe it is important we recognise this involvement and give back to those in need. Even though the Hardship Fund primarily supports people within our own community, increasingly we are extending this support to those working for other other organisations and in other parts of the world.”

What can I expect from the fund? The Hardship Fund can help you in different ways. Initially we will always look for practical ways to assist. The Black Fish community is creative and resourceful and the Fund’s patrons have a large network of people that are ready to help. Financial support would typically consist of a one-off 500 euro grant. Depending on the circumstances we may consider a second grant or a larger one-off contribution.

Let us help you. See how the Hardship Fund can help you or someone you care about.

Speaking tour rallies for Baltic Sea protection

The Black Fish is launching a Baltic wide speaking tour to rally public support for action to conserve the Baltic Sea. During 14 free public events in 8 countries, Baltic Coordinator for The Black Fish, Emma Källqvist, will talk about global overfishing, the problems facing the Baltic and how ordinary citizens can act for conservation. The tour starts in Helsinki on Saturday 20 September, followed by events in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

Emma will speak at the events and will call on attendents to sign up for training courses to actively help expose the criminal activity around the Baltic Sea, as a ‘Citizen Inspector’. Emma: “The ocean is in bad shape and we need to protect it. One of the most pressing issues locally is the continued illegal overfishing of the Baltic Sea. Our approach is to get ordinary people to help report on illegal practices and ensure that illegal fishing in the Baltic Sea needs to become a thing of the past”.

The Black Fish aims to use the evidence collected by Citizen Inspectors to initiate prosecution in areas where traditional enforcement is proving inadequate.

Founder of The Black Fish, Wietse Van Der Werf: “It is not an ideal situation to be training up volunteers to aid enforcement, which is essentially a governmental responsibility. However, with close to 90% of European fishing populations over-exploited and species such as cod and tuna in ever-greater trouble, it is vital that ordinary citizens step in. We are being ambitious about bringing this issue to the forefront of the public and political agenda as it needs to be addressed.”

All the events are public and free entry. The Black Fish looks forward to welcome you at one of the tour events!

Tour Listing

20 Sep – Helsinki, Finland
12:00–14:00 @ Uusi ylioppilastalo, Mannerheimintie 5 A, 5. kerros

21 Sep – Tempere, Finland
13:00–15:30 @ Vanhan kirjastotalon luentosali, Keskustori 4

22 Sep – Turku, Finland
18:00–20:00 @ Nuorten taide- ja toimintatalo Vimman teatteritila, Aurakatu 16

23 Sep – Tallinn, Estonia
18:00 @ Eesti Rahvusraamatukogu väikeses saalis (Tõnismägi 2)

24 Sep – Tartu, Estonia
18:00 @ Tartu Keskkonnahariduse Keskuses (Lille 10)

26/27 Sep – Riga, Latvia
13:00 @ Skolad iela 15, Riag, LC 1010

28 Sep – Vilnius, Lithuania
13:00 @ Mediateka (Vilniaus g. 39, II auks(tas)

30 Sep – Gdansk, Poland
18:30 @ Starter, Leborska 3b, 80-386 Gdansk

7 Oct – Berlin, Germany
18:30 @ Europsiches Theaterinsitut e.v, Shauspieslschule Berlin, Rungstr 20, 10179, Berlin

10 Oct – Hamburg, Germany
19:30 @ GWA St.Pauli e.V., Hein-Köllisch-Platz 11-12, 20359 Hamburg

22 Oct – Malmö, Sweden
18:30 @ Stora Salen på Studiefrämjandet, Ystadsgatan 53C

27 Oct – Göteborg, Sweden
18:30 @ Galleriet på Allégården, Södra Allégatan 4

29 Oct – Stockholm, Sweden
18:30 @ Medborgarskolan Rum 301, Hagagatan 23

We look forward to welcome you at one of the events!

The Black Fish launches new training courses

An exciting international Training Programme has been launched by the Black Fish with the aim to provide existing activists and ordinary citizens alike with the necessary tools and resources to effectively take part in marine conservation work. This unprecedented initiative aims to lower existing barriers for people interested in getting involved.

• Programme aims to foster personal development and capacity building for conservation
• Courses offered at a discounted rate to engage a wide range of demographics
• Unique platform fosters networking and collaboration between participants
• Applications are now open for those interested to join one of the courses

In collaboration with various European partner organisations, The Black Fish offers a variety of relevant courses at a significantly lower rate which makes personal development accessible to a wide range of people that may be interested in marine conservation work, including parents, passionate beach goers, students, travellers, photographers, those with demanding careers and even the unemployed. In short: anyone can take part!

In partnership with the Sail Boat Project, based in the UK, three courses are offered to people interested in sailing and seamanship at different levels. While the online Essential Navigation and Seamanship course provides an introduction to the basic skills required before taking a small boat to sea, the Competent Crew is a practical course that introduces the complete beginner to sailing at a level required to be a useful member of the crew of a sailing yacht. After completing these courses, one is encouraged to take it a step further with the Day Skipper course, which prepares individuals for making the decisions on board.

Besides courses that take place at sea, The Black Fish Training Programme also includes a course which trains individuals below the surface. In collaboration with Het Duikhuis, a PADI Open Water course is offered in The Netherlands. Upon completion, one is capable of diving to a depth of 18 meters with a buddy.

These relevant courses – and those in development – are part of the Training Programme as The Black Fish understands the power of education and its significance in empowering people within the marine conservation movement to develop and grow their skill set. We also recognise this is an area that deserves more attention than it currently receives and The Black Fish will continue to make a significant investment to strengthen and expand the Training Programme.

Learn more and apply now at theblackfish.org/training

‘Citizen Inspectors’ to tackle EU fishing crime

A new international programme was launched today as part of World Oceans Day, bringing a new approach to the global effort to halt illegal fishing. The Citizen Inspector Network will train hundreds of volunteers as inspectors over the coming years, realising independent monitoring of fishing activity in Europe’s fishing ports and markets.

• Network aims to train 1,600 volunteers in 10 years, doubling fishing inspectors in EU
• Investigations to focus on illegal fishing practices in Baltic, Atlantic and Mediterranean
• Collected evidence used to initiate prosecution where corruption obstructs enforcement
• Those interested can now apply to join Citizen Inspector training in one of five countries

Marine conservation organisation The Black Fish has initiated the network in response to growing concerns that current enforcement efforts are not effective enough in dealing with illegal practices. Wietse van der Werf, founder of The Black Fish: “Up to a third of fish caught in European seas is estimated to be caught illegally and we see increased evidence of corruption and organised crime interfering with fisheries enforcement efforts.”

The Black Fish aims to use the evidence collected by Citizen Inspectors to initiate prosecution in areas where traditional enforcement is proving inadequate. Van Der Werf: “It is not an ideal situation to be training up volunteers to aid enforcement, which is essentially a governmental responsibility. However, with close to 90% of European fishing populations over-exploited and species such as bluefin tuna nearing extinction, it is vital that ordinary citizens step in. We are being ambitious about bringing this issue to the forefront of the public and political agenda as it needs to be addressed.”

Further information about the Citizen Inspector Network can be found at theblackfish.org/cin

Today’s launch coincided with the release of the new animation film Meet The Citizen Inspector, produced by Dutch animators Van Origine, in cooperation with MrLee. Watch the animation: