What drives crime and criminality on and in the ocean?
Watch the TRAFFIC documentary: Empty Shells: Inside the illegal abalone trade
Criminality is a complex domain and there are many reasons why activities deemed illegal or criminal take place. Breaking laws on the sea by small-scale sectors or actors may be due to poverty; historical inequalities that have persisted across generations; aspirations and dreams for the future; resistance to absent, unrecognised, or harmful state activities; kinship and broader social entanglements; and losing access rights to adjacent waters. Each of these may drive people to use resources ‘illegally’.
If you are not going to deal with the structural inequality, and the poverty, and the food [in]security within communities, you won’t be able to deal with the illegal poaching and fishing … no matter how strong you come, with whatever force you come with, with whatever policy you come with, you have to deal with the underlying issues – Moenieba Isaacs [43:00].
Crime rates are higher amongst impoverished communities and in the detailed discussion around the poaching of abalone (a species of South African shellfish) the panel referenced the ongoing impact of South Africa’s history of racism and social injustice on both intractable poverty and criminal activities within many communities. Poaching is usually extremely risky; many poachers are injured or killed in the course of their activities. Arrest will usually lead to further personal injury, including imprisonment. Despite these risks poaching continues, often in a context in which many people have little opportunity to realise their aspirations for a better life through legal means.
A focus on reasoning by those engaging in criminal activity is also one-sided – there is a demand for these goods in large quantities, and consequently, poaching is still a viable way of earning money. This adds additional complication to any story of crime, as once poached or illegally fished items leave the hands of small-scale poachers, and usually enter markets which are operated legally. As a result abalone which is harvested illegally and sold as illegal goods then enter, for example, the Chinese markets a legal commodity, where they fetch a high price
This is in contradistinction to the issue of narcosubmarines, as arguably all stages of this operation are deemed illegal at international, regional and national levels.
Watch a section of the documentary titled ‘Narco Subs’
Narco Submarines: Vessels, usually submarine, built for the purpose of smuggling narcotics via ocean routes
Javier Guerrero has spent many years researching the traffic of narcotics produced in South America to point of sale, most often in North America, via marine routes. One of the most intriguing aspects of this trade is the use of submerged or semi-submerged vessels built for the purpose of smuggling the drugs along ocean corridors. This is an extremely dangerous activity as not only is there little hope of rescue if the ‘narco submarine’ flounders but these activities have become a focus in many countries’ efforts to stem the illegal drugs trade. As a result, there are heavy penalties for those who are caught.
The battle between narcotics smugglers and marine law enforcement is often presented by authorities as a race against technology, which it is in many senses, as each ‘side’ tries to remain one step ahead of the other’s innovations in either vessel design or tracking.
However, the enforcement priorities of authorities often neglects the important circumstances in which an illegal activity has becomes ‘normalized.’ As posited by Javier, for many actors in narcosmuggling, this is not considered exceptional, as many of the actors belong to impoverished and marginalised groups. In many cases, communities may lack basic amenities and receive little social and economic support from the state. In the absence of functioning economic and social systems and legislation sensitive to the realities, the black and white perception as to whether the activity is legal or illegal may be obsolete. Instead, people may make their decisions based on kinship with a practice and because it is familiar and easy to become involved with.
In many ways the closing discussion around illegal fishing and narcotrafficking encapsulated the critical themes that ran through the discussion. That is, that regulation is so far falling short of fair and equitable practice – systemic structural inequalities result in the easy criminalization of the poor. Regulation, surveillance, and enforcement often operate in a legislative regime which compounds this issue, particularly because it has resulted in a myopic rather than holistic focus. There was consensus that often systems did not take into account nor address factors fundamental to driving these activities from a small scale perspective. Accordingly, the focus either directly or indirectly shifts to prosecuting small-scale fishers even as large marine operations appear to be laying out the conditions for this criminality.