Remarks from Pew Executive Vice President Josh Reichert on the Launch of Interpol's Project Scale

On Feb. 26, 2013, Interpol, the government of Norway, and  The Pew Charitable Trusts launched Project Scale, a new effort to reduce illegal fishing throughout the world. Josh Reichert, who runs Pew's environmental initiatives, spoke at the launch event. Below is the text from his remarks.

It is both a privilege and a pleasure to be with you today for the launch of Project Scale. We are delighted to be working with Interpol and the government of Norway in this endeavor, and are looking forward to a day of discussions that we hope will mark the beginning of new efforts by the international community to significantly reduce illegal fishing throughout the world's oceans.

In less than a single lifetime, fishing has gone from being a relatively constrained activity, in which large areas of the ocean were inaccessible to fishermen, to one in which new technologies and industrial-scale fishing gear make it possible to penetrate almost every part of the ocean and to literally strip the sea of fish and other forms of marine life.  

Not so long ago, there were places in the ocean where fish could hide from the relentless pursuit of industrial fishing vessels. No longer. In many parts of the world, we are engaged in the maritime equivalent of the last buffalo hunt.

Effectively controlled and sustainably managed global fisheries can be a secure source of food and revenue for millions of people. Illegal fishing significantly undermines that opportunity. It is a major threat to the long-term well-being of the world's fisheries and the livelihood of tens of millions of people who depend on ocean resources for food and income.

Illegal fishing costs the world billions of dollars each year in lost revenue. Moreover, it has a disproportionate impact on the poor, particularly those who live in coastal states and who depend on fish for much of the animal protein they consume. Finally, illegal fishing further exacerbates the problem of overfishing as the number of illegally caught fish is not factored into decisions by management entities when they set fishery quotas.

Illegal fishing impacts everyone—rich and poor alike. And it is becoming more pervasive. If we are ever to get a handle on this pernicious activity, we must start now.

"The work of Project Scale and the ability to draw on Interpol's network of 190 crime bureaus to share vital information are an important step to changing fisheries crime from the relatively low-risk activity it is today to one that carries a much higher likelihood of serious and costly sanctions, including criminal prosecution."

-Josh Reichert

A very large portion of Pew's work is focused on ending overfishing and restoring fisheries and other marine life to a state of health. Reducing illegal fishing is a critical part of achieving these goals. We believe that with the right combination of resources and effort by the international community, it is possible to significantly reduce illegal fishing worldwide and to get large-scale illegal fishing vessels off the water.

In 2008, we began efforts to strengthen the ability of port states to take action against vessels that were carrying illegally caught fish in their holds. We believed then, as we do now, that such measures can be an efficient and cost-effective tool for combating illegal fishing. There is little, if any, doubt that if illegal fishing vessels are denied port access and subject to search and seizure, cargo confiscation, and having criminal charges filed against both the vessel owner and captain, port States could shift the cost-benefit equation in ways that would significantly discourage illegal fishing and help to stop illegally caught fish from reaching international markets.

As a result of our work and that of other like-minded organizations and governments, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization adopted in 2009 the “Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing.” Five countries have ratified this agreement to date. Over the next several years, we are committed to encouraging 20 additional countries to sign this agreement, bringing the total number to 25, which is the amount needed to put this treaty into effect. Once it enters into force, this will be the first internationally binding U.N. agreement that establishes the duty of port states to inspect fishing boats or to deny port entry to vessels that are deemed to be operating illegally.

While this is a critical step toward ending illegal fishing and the crimes associated with it, more is needed. A study we conducted that was published in the journal Science in May of 2010 argued that effective monitoring and control of fishing activities requires several essential and complementary elements. These include:

  • the ability to clearly identify illegal fishing vessels;
  • information sharing across national borders and national rule-making; and
  • globally coordinated measures to combat illegal fishing.

The importance of these three elements in the global fight to stop illegal fishing was underscored and elaborated upon at a multiday enforcement roundtable convened by Pew in September 2011. It included law enforcement and legal experts, such as David Higgins of Interpol, Cmdr. Dan Schaeffer and Lt. Cmdr. Brad Soule from the U.S. Coast Guard, as well as a cross-section of experts from other enforcement sectors such as maritime piracy, international money laundering, and other environmental crimes, like illegal logging. Also present were representatives from seafood retailers, fishery management organizations, scientific institutions, and the conservation community. Gunnar Stølsvik from the Norwegian government was there, along with a number of other people who are here with us today.

The roundtable concluded that the activities of illegal fishers mirrored other types of organized and transnational crime, including drug trafficking, money laundering, people smuggling, piracy, and the illegal wildlife trade. And it was there, over an informal evening conversation between Gunnar, David, and our director of international ocean conservation, Karen Sack, that the idea to launch the fisheries crime desk at Interpol was born.

Based on the outputs of the roundtable and other research, we have concluded that the core elements of a global fisheries enforcement system must:

  • build recognition that illegal fishng is an environmental, economic, and social problem and that there is a need to combat it;
  • redefine illegal fishing so that it is recognized as a transnational criminal activity, not simply a fisheries management issue;
  • encourage police engagement (beyond fisheries enforcement) to combat fisheries crime;
  • enable the deployment of existing and evolving technology, data and intelligence gathering, and quick, readily acessible information sharing to pinpoint violators, and
  • increase the incentives for countries to sanction illegal operators and those who support their activities by closing off access to key markets and ports and securing effective prosecutions of the true owners of these vessels.

As a result of this analysis, we have developed a vision for a global fisheries enforcement system which we believe is achievable within the next 10 years. It is a system that will enable even the most resource-poor fisheries enforcement official to have access to timely, accurate, and up-to-date information from a central, reliable source. A single click of a computer mouse or text message could provide sufficiently accurate information to enable enforcement officials to confidently permit or deny port entry; to inspect a specific vessel; and, if illegal fishery cargo is discovered, to initiate legal proceedings against the vessel owners, including the confiscation of the vessel and its cargo as well as the detention of its crew.

The information would connect back to a global enforcement network that would facilitate prosecution of the true owner and master of the vessel in their places of residence, and link into other international policing systems to alert authorities who might be investigating these same individuals or companies for other crimes. It would also enable fisheries management bodies to update their databases and make decisions about which vessels to authorize to fish in their areas of competence, and which to prohibit.

Interpol's Project Scale has the potential to be an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle that will stop illegal fishers from taking advantage of patchy laws and regulations, inadequate communication, weak surveillance and enforcement, and poor intelligence sharing between authorities. Prosecuting illegal fishers—particularly the owners or kingpins of illegal fishing syndicates—is beset by financial, jurisdictional, evidentiary, and technological challenges. The work of Project Scale and the ability to draw on Interpol's network of 190 crime bureaus to share vital information are an important step to changing fisheries crime from the relatively low-risk activity it is today to one that carries a much higher likelihood of serious and costly sanctions, including criminal prosecution.

Many of you in this room will play a significant part in changing that balance. Thank you for joining us. We look forward to working with you in the months and years ahead in an expanding global effort to end illegal fishing in the world's oceans.

Thank you.