Gangsters of the sea

How definitions of organised crime correspond with characteristics of illegal fishing

Board and combat: The Australian government is investing substantially in armed patrol vessels, aircraft and satellite surveillance operations to combat illegal fishing. Illegal fishing has become so systematic and sophisticated that researchers now call for it to be included in definitions of organised crime. Photo: Australian Customs and Border Protection
There is strong evidence that many marine resources lack sufficient protection either by local governments or international regulations. Added to the problem are Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing vessels that work on the fringes of international law and can have detrimental effects on marine living resources.
As a follow-up to previous research on IUU fishing in the Antarctic, centre researcher Henrik Österblom along with colleagues from Australia and Japan have elaborated the argument that systematic, well-organised natural resource exploitation should be included in the definition of organised crime.
Österblom and his colleagues have carefully 'dissected' definitions and perceptions of organised crime in order to see if formal definitions of organized crime are similar to those of IUU fishing.
Frequently slipping away
Organised crime does not threat the physical survival of a state, but impacts its quality and identity. Through sophisticated criminal networks, means to avoid the law and launder assets derived from illicit activities, organised crime has been resilient to government policies.
Similarly, illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean can also be regarded as a non-traditional security threat. The vessels involved are usually part of complex, dynamic networks with layers of corporations to hide beneficiary owners, some of which have used bribery as a means of intimidation in order to avoid prosecution.
"IUU operators have been able to adapt to government policies, due to a combination of increased offshore coordination and industry consolidation, hidden corporative beneficiaries and substantial monetary assets. These factors contribute to their resilience," says centre researcher Henrik Österblom.
Don't just catch the big fish
Organised crime is often conceptualized as a foreign threat with ethnic connotations. Fighting drug trafficking and other illegal activities has traditionally focused on catching the big bosses in organisations that are erroneously considered strictly controlled and hierarchical environments. Not necessarily.
Well-organised criminal operations often consist of less hierarchical organisations, that instead are dynamic, multinational networks of interlinked (and often replaceable) groups and interests. They often share bonds of friendships and operate different functions without central leadership.
Illegal fishing has equally been described as a foreign threat, with a strong focus on a small number of implicated nationalities. For instance, illegal fishing around the Australian Sub-Antarctic Islands has been so substantial that Australia has considered this to be a highly sensitive breach of sovereignty. Attempts to curb the illegal fishing by putting the “big fish" behind bars, has proven difficult because they operate in highly dynamic networks in the Southern Ocean.
Illicit in a licit marked
Fair enough, there are a few differences as well. Fish is not an illegal substance that is detrimental to human health and it does not contribute to the deterioration of society or state functions. But illegal fishing influences state credibility and have substantial economic consequences, particularly because of the overlap between licit and illicit markets.
"The greatest differences between organised illegal fishing and organised crime are the immediacy of impact on society and the degree to which illegal fishing jeopardise the business of legitimate fisheries relying on the same resource," Österblom says.
"Systematic, well-organised and illegal activities have been described in toothfish, abalone, salmon, shark, tuna, sturgeon fisheries, and even whaling. Such illegal exploitation of ecosystems directly undermines legitimate activities, degrade ecosystem services in the long term which in turn will have social consequences. This is serious, and should be regarded as organised crime," Österblom concludes.
For more readings on organized crime and the fishing industry, see this recent report on Transnational Organized Crime in the Fishing Industry, published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

See video interview with Jeremy Allouche from Institute of Development Studies on how conflicts over natural resources should  be resolved:

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H. Österblom, A. Constable, S. Fukumi (2011) Illegal fishing and the organized crime analogy Trends in ecology & evolution. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2011.03.017.

Henrik Österblom is a researcher at Baltic Nest Institute and Stockholm Resilience Centre and is also science-policy co-ordinator at the centre. His research is focused on food-web interactions, trophic cascades and ecosystem regime shifts, as well as governance of marine resources.


Stockholm Resilience Centre is a collaboration between Stockholm University and the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

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