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Drug traffickers have been busted using everything from drones to ambulances to run narcotics, but the most valuable cargoes move over maritime routes. Law enforcement has cracked down on smuggling aboard container ships and other large vessels, but drug trafficking by the world’s 4.6 million fishing boats has largely been overlooked, says Dyhia Belhabib, principal investigator of fisheries at Ecotrust Canada.
As a result, the role that fisheries-based drug smuggling plays in a global industry worth US $650-billion a year was largely unknown. Now, a new study led by Belhabib reveals that criminals are increasingly using fishing vessels to smuggle illicit drugs, mainly high-value narcotics such as cocaine and heroin. She estimates that over $100-billion in drugs are trafficked aboard fishing vessels each year.
Crime at sea is not a new phenomenon. The fisheries sector is rife with illegal practices, including human trafficking, slavery, money laundering, unauthorized transshipment between vessels, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. These activities have been in the spotlight much more than drug trafficking, says Belhabib, and drug traffickers take advantage of the same legal loopholes and trade routes. These illegal operations are frequently carried out by criminal networks and international syndicates, making them types of transnational organized crime.
Vast, unpatrolled oceans provide ideal cover for these illicit activities. Even with the advent of satellite surveillance, “we don’t have the capacity to monitor the ocean as effectively as we’d like,” says Teale Phelps Bondaroff, director of research at nonprofit OceansAsia and an expert in fisheries crime who was not involved in the study. The high seas are hotspots for organized crime, as are the waters of developing countries with low enforcement capacity, he says. “Where governance is poor, crime will flourish.”
To quantify the role of fishing vessels in drug trafficking, Belhabib and her colleagues compiled information on drug seizures from global databases, reports, and media sources. Since most drug shipments are not detected by authorities, the researchers used statistical analyses to estimate the total quantity and value of drugs trafficked between 2010 and 2017.
They found drug seizures aboard fishing vessels tripled in the seven-year period, with the majority occurring on artisanal boats. The drug shipments were small but still high in value, indicating that traffickers are shifting shipments from large vessels to artisanal boats to avoid detection, says Belhabib.
It’s a clever strategy, says Phelps Bondaroff. “Fishing vessels tend to blend in,” he says, whereas cargo ships or other big vessels may draw attention from authorities. Smaller shipments also minimize product loss if a vessel is captured, he adds.
There are multiple reasons why fishers engage in illicit activities, but it basically boils down to reduced catch and lost income, says Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood, a maritime security researcher at Scotland’s University of St Andrews who was not involved in the research. To prevent fishers from turning to drug trafficking by necessity, governments should consult fishers and implement policies that supplement their livelihoods, says Okafor-Yarwood.
Even well-intentioned conservation efforts—such as no-take marine protected areas—can exacerbate this cycle of poverty, forcing fishers to find other ways to sustain themselves, Belhabib says. Future research should examine why fishers turn to trafficking, she says, because “the participation of small-scale fishers in the illicit drug trade is a symptom of something much bigger.”
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had mixed effects on small-scale fisheries, but has likely not drawn new fishers into drug trafficking, says Belhabib. The diversion of resources to the health crisis, however, is certainly good news for existing smuggling operations, she adds.
For vulnerable artisanal fishers already struggling to make ends meet, a harsh enforcement crackdown will only make things worse, warns Belhabib. “Poverty is a main driver, and criminalizing the poor will not solve the problem. It never has.”