On 15 May, the illegal fishing vessel Perlon was detained in Malaysia carrying approximately US$6.4 million of illegally fished Patagonian toothfish. Perlon is one of six notorious illegal fishing vessels operating in the Southern Ocean that has been targeted by the environmental group Sea Shepherd, which calls them the Bandit 6. Of the six, two others have been recently detained by authorities. The vessel Thunder, perhaps the most notorious of all, appears to have been deliberately scuttled off the West African coast in April in order to destroy evidence of illegal fishing.


The Patagonian Toothfish. (Wikipedia.)

The detention of these ships is undoubtedly good news, but it should not mask the extreme difficulty associated with countering illegal fishing, much of it caused by a complex and unwieldy legal structure. The fact that it remains so difficult to detain illegal fishing vessels should be a major worry for policymakers, because illegal fishing vessels are the engine of maritime organised crime. If a vessel can smuggle fish, it can smuggle drugs, weapons, and people. The ability of illegal fishing vessels to operate with impunity doesn't just pose a terrible threat to the world's ecosystems. It constitutes a major security challenge to all states.

The Thunder was followed by Sea Shepherd vessels for 110 days before its demise. Since December 2013, it had been on an Interpol 'purple notice', which ask states and other actors to provide information about criminal activities with the ultimate goal of detention or arrest. How did this vessel elude capture for so long, particularly given its monitoring by Sea Shepherd?

It is extremely difficult to investigate and detain these vessels because of overlapping legislation and regulation. A vessel flies a 'flag' of the state where it is registered. Many of these 'flag states' are tiny, poor, and corrupt countries that sell the registry rights to companies who administer the flags from remote offices, including in the US and Singapore. Ship owners further evade responsibility by registering ships in elaborate company constructions, making it difficult to determine ownership. Illegal vessels also confuse matters by frequently changing name and appearance. The Kunlun, another of the Bandit 6, had had at least three names and had been registered in six different countries by the time Australian authorities caught up with it in February.

Moreover, illegal fishing vessels operate on the high seas. From a distance, they could be any fishing vessel. After the scuttling of Thunder, a Sea Shepherd spokesman told CNN that vessels were 'out there in these shadowlands, these unpatrolled remote regions,' because of the ability to operate with impunity.

Smuggling routes are valuable for any type of organised crime, so illegal fishing vessels can and have been involved in trafficking people, smuggling drugs and weapons, and assisting with illegal migration, problems which have a high social cost and pose a security threat. For instance, smuggling drugs and other illegal goods helps finance terrorism, and illegal routes can be used circumvent government efforts to control the travel of suspected terrorists by cancelling their passports.

Criminal fishing also imposes a terrible human cost on crews. Trafficking in crews is relatively commonplace. Vessels have been known to disappear without trace, taking their crews with them. Sea Shepherd reported that a distress signal from a suspected illegal fishing vessel was heard during the search for MH370. Debris discovered in the area suggests the vessel and its crew had been lost, their whereabouts presumably forever unknown to families and friends.

Imagine, then, that the Australian Border Protection Command spotted a vessel known to be illegally fishing off the coast of Australia. That vessel may have also been implicated in any number of crimes. If the vessel is out of Australia's exclusive economic zone, it will be very difficult to board without permission from the flag state. Accordingly, law enforcement officials or navies must go down the rabbit hole of uncovering where the ship is registered (bearing in mind that ships change registration to avoid detection), contacting the state of registry (which may very well be in a country like Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, or Panama), waiting for the response (which may be delayed if the registry is not actually located in the flag state but in a registry management service), and then seeking permission to board. The lengthy process can and does allow vessels to escape.

As onerous as this seems, the difficulty of intercepting a known criminal vessel in a known hotspot for illegal fishing pales in comparison with that of catching a vessel smuggling trafficked women across a busy shipping lane, or one moving narcotics between two other ships.

There are some aspects of maritime crime that we cannot remedy; the world's oceans are big and fishing vessels operate with ease. But the unbelievable complexity of the ship registry system must be reduced and its loopholes must be closed. It is simply impossible to imagine that any such potentially corruptible system would be allowed to operate on land, and it should not operate at sea. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea recently issued an advisory opinion arguing that flag states should be held liable for the illegal fishing of vessels registered to them. This is an important first step, but if states are serious about ecological protection and international security, they should act urgently to tighten the system of ship registration.