Corruption in fisheries

By Dr Yifei Yan and Professor Adam Graycar

  • Corruption is a problem throughout fish value chains.
  • The consequences are widespread and more serious than just illegality.
  • A structured, policy-based approach is needed to address this issue.

Fish products have become an indispensable part of our dining tables. It is estimated that over the last six decades, global per capita fish consumption has risen from 9.9 kg to 19.2 kg.

Most eat fish that are caught locally; many eat fish that are caught in another part of the world. Global trade in these products has prospered accordingly, with an annual growth rate of 3.9% in real terms from 1976 to 2010. The sector provides direct incomes for about 60 million people and for another 750 million indirectly. It also plays an important role in the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean and other water resources.

Effective governance of fisheries is therefore crucial for the wellbeing of our oceans, rivers and food chains. Nevertheless, there are many opportunities for corruption, which makes the trade in and consumption of fish a threat to sustainability as well as a generator of poverty.

Three knowns

While there has been research and action on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, much less is known about corruption in fisheries, from which three key things can be observed. First, corruption of different types occurs at various stages of fish production, or “throughout the value chain”, as seen in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) recent report Rotten fish: A guide on addressing corruption in the fisheries sector.

Second, the consequences of corruption in fisheries may also be far wider and more grave than just illegality. Evidence from South Africa to the Pacific Islands has shown that it has weakened law enforcement, hampered compliance of environmental regulations, fuelled illegalities, undermined good governance and compromised the legitimacy of fisheries co-management. It also provides opportunities for human trafficking and slavery.

Third, corruption is conceptually different, as it occurs where illegal activities are deliberately ignored, or even encouraged and facilitated by public officials for their private gains. Yet whether it is IUU fishing or corruption, a similar set of structural vulnerabilities exists, such as weak surveillance and enforcement or destitution of fishing communities affected by quota restrictions and declining stocks.

To further the understanding of corruption in fisheries, researchers from the London School of Economics and the University of Adelaide surveyed existing academic literature, media coverage and reports from international organizations that have reported corruption in this sector. We analysed diverse cases by exploring different types of corruption and different stages of the production process.

The cases invariably show that corruption is far from a monolithic concept which occurs in one form or at one time/space. Rather, corruption problems are found in areas such as licensing, negotiating access agreements, lax enforcement, extortion, political corruption, money laundering and tax manipulation, and human trafficking, to name a few. Corrupt activities are not confined to the the Southern Hemisphere or developing countries. Corruption in licensing, access agreement negotiation, money laundering or tax fraud occurs in both rich and poor countries. Furthermore, activities go beyond the local or national level; they have international ramifications. Through careful analysis, corruption problems in fisheries can therefore be better identified.

A fresh approach

The complexity of corruption in fisheries highlights the need for a more comprehensive mix of anti-corruption measures that go beyond basic, and often times weakly enforced regulations. Indeed, most nations have signed up to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), and nearly all have outlawed illegal fishing. Hence, what matters is not the proliferation of laws or treaties, but better diagnosis of the issues as well as enforcement.

Focusing exclusively on fighting crimes and strengthening law enforcement also misses an opportunity to consider how to bring other factors and policy tools into play. For instance, ensuring that licensing agreements are made public and catch information is displayed on online government portals is an important measure for enhancing transparency and accountability. Tracing the provenance of fish is important to buyers, and ultimately to consumers. Often officers are poorly paid and inadequately resourced to perform their duties. When local bribe-takers see their superiors at higher-levels engage in corruption without being punished, a sense of unfairness and demoralization prevails.

Without a structured approach, the prevalence, complexity and embeddedness of corrupt events within fisheries will continue to be a challenge to the realisation of sustainable development goals around fish-related resources, ecology and livelihood. Unless effectively tackled, its impact may be further joined and amplified by other issues such as overfishing and environmental risks such as climate change and ocean acidification, which the sector is already facing.

While policy-makers around the world have increasingly recognised this challenge, it is high time more effort is made in devising a comprehensive mix of relevant and calibrated policy instruments based on a clearer understanding of the phenomenon. This mix should do more than scratch the surface; it should target the root causes of corruption as embedded in cultures, societies or countries.

This article was originally published by the World Economic Forum (Virtuat Oceans Dialogue) on 22 May 2020.

Tagged in policy matters