Gohar Petrossian’s Book Talk Examines the Factors that Make Illegal Fishing Possible

Gohar Petrossian’s Book Talk Examines the Factors that Make Illegal Fishing Possible

Gohar Petrossian’s Book Talk Examines the Factors that Make Illegal Fishing Possible

Criminal activity can happen anywhere, including the open ocean. During her October 10 book talk for The Last Fish Swimming, Gohar Petrossian, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and Director of the International Crime and Justice Master’s program, highlighted the pervasive practice of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which has damaging effects on local economies, the environment, and even the lives of fishermen. “The problem of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing was not a problem until several decades ago,” said Petrossian. “The time coincides with the second industrialization period of the 1950s when fishing went from a sustenance activity to more of an elaborate, multi-billion dollar industry.”

“Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is really no different from the type of conventional crime that we’re used to studying as criminologists.” —Gohar Petrossian

Approaching the subject as a criminologist, Petrossian conducted in-depth analysis of illegal fishing activities exploring how the practice came to be and what is being done to end it. “IUU fishing is really no different from the type of conventional crime that we’re used to studying as criminologists,” said Petrossian. “We can apply information and apply the tools we have to suggest policy-relevant and empirically-based recommendations in the hopes of creating more focused and situational policies that will deal with illegal fishing, one fishery at a time.” But in order to fix a problem, you first have to define what it is.

Understanding a Complex Crime
Helping the audience understand IUU fishing better, Petrossian broke down the problem. “IUU fishing is considered one of the most complex, transnational, environmental crimes,” she said. “One component pertains to the geographic scope of the activity. The area assigned by the United Nation’s Law of the Seas gives a country the exclusive right to harvest species 200 nautical miles from the country’s coast to the sea,” explained Petrossian, adding that this area is the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Anything beyond the EEZ is called the high seas, and regulations for the high seas are set by regional fisheries management organizations. Illegal fishing occurs when fishing takes place in a closed area that may or may not be in the country’s EEZ; when a vessel fishes in another country’s EEZ; or when a vessel is fishing in its own waters with illegal gear or without a license. Illegal fishers also use dangerous methods to ensure they get their catch. Elaborating on these methods, Petrossian spoke of bottom trawling, which involves dragging heavy metal nets across the seafloor, scooping everything in its path, and destroying ocean habitats; blast fishing, where underwater explosions are detonated, forcing fish to swim to the surface where they are collected by nets; telephoning, where electrocution is used to force fish to the surface; and poison fishing, where poison is used to stun the fish out of their coral reef habitat, destroying the coral reef.  

Petrossian proudly smiles while holding her book, The Last Fish Swimming
Petrossian proudly smiles while holding her book, The Last Fish Swimming.

Recognizing the Impact
“The geographic scope of illegal fishing is wide and far-reaching, with almost every fishery in the world suffering from IUU fishing in one form or another,” explained Petrossian. But the economic, social, and environmental impact is far greater. “Coastal developing countries that significantly depend on fish for sustenance and livelihood are affected with major impacts on not only their legal fisheries, but also the communities that heavily depend on a particular fish species to live.” Those same developing countries also see a more devastating social impact after their local fishermen are recruited to work on the illegal vessel. “After they’re recruited, they become subjected to various types of human rights violations, including physical, sexual, and verbal abuse. And, in the most serious cases, fishermen are killed and thrown off boats,” she added. “These fishermen are collectively known as de facto prisoners of the sea, or sea slaves, and stay on the vessel for months or years at a time.”

“The geographic scope of illegal fishing is wide and far-reaching, with almost every fishery in the world suffering from IUU fishing in one form or another.” —Gohar Petrossian

Illegal fishing also takes a heavy environmental toll because it targets species already vulnerable to over-harvesting and overfishing, such as cod. Non-targeted fish and sea creatures also suffer, as they are a “by-catch” of the fishing process. If a non-targeted species is caught, it gets thrown back into the sea, “because they're considered waste,” explained Petrossian. “Most of these by-catch species happen to be critically endangered or on the verge of extinction.” Citing the vaquita porpoise as an example, Petrossian explained how the chase for the totoaba fish has led to the vaquita's demise as they both inhabit the same body of water—the Gulf of California. “The totoaba fish is a delicacy in China, where its swim bladder is believed to have medicinal healing properties,” she said. “The totoaba is caught using gillnets, but because their distribution overlaps, the vaquita is also caught.” Vaquita porpoises, similar to dolphins, need to come up to the surface to breathe. So, when they’re caught in the gillnets, they drown. “As of today, estimates suggest that there are only 19 vaquitas left in the world, so we are witnessing their extinction,” said Petrossian. 

Petrossian engaging the audience during her book talk
Petrossian engaging the audience during her book talk

Getting Away with a Crime
Pointing to the facilitating factors that have enabled illegal fishing, Petrossian noted the role of corruption within the system. “Unfortunately, the places where illegal fishing is rampant are the places where there is a lot of corruption in the overall fisheries management sectors,” she said. Maritime law requires that all vessels at sea carry a flag of a country, and must abide by that country’s rules when conducting activities at sea. To evade strict regulations, many vessels carry a “flag of convenience,” wherein they carry a flag of a different country. “Some countries—such as landlocked countries—allow ships to carry their flag for profit. They have no fishing fleet and no fishing interests whatsoever, but they do have an interest in selling their flag to anyone that wants it,” explained Petrossian.

“Globally, illegal fishers have figured out the vulnerabilities in the system.” —Gohar Petrossian

Another prevalent activity is flag hopping, where a vessel will drop one flag of convenience in favor of another. “Let’s say the country decides it’s going to investigate the activities of the fishing vessel, by the time an investigation begins, the vessel has already changed flags. Therefore, they’re no longer subject to that country’s regulations, prosecution, or punishment.” Illegal fishers also seem to be one step ahead of organizations meant to keep them in check. “Globally, illegal fishers have figured out the vulnerabilities in the system and at ports,” said Petrossian. “They know exactly where to go to offload their catch in order to decrease their chances of being caught red-handed.” And, when they can’t offload the catch themselves, they employ another vessel to do the drop off, in a practice known as laundering at sea.

The cover of The Last Fish Swimming
The cover of The Last Fish Swimming

“Get involved through research, help raise awareness and make responsible choices so that hopefully our generation will not be the generation to witness the last fish swimming.” —Gohar Petrossian

Creating Innovative Solutions
But, not all hope is lost. There are a number of innovative initiatives taking shape with the goal of deterring illegal fishing, according to Petrossian. The creation of satellite-based vessel monitoring systems has made fishing activity, and the movement of fishing vessels, available to the public and possible to monitor. On the research side, a pilot study on the albatross seabird is underway that may help facilitate vessel tracking. “The movement of albatrosses tells us a lot about the movement of fishing vessels because they follow the vessels. By putting tracking devices on the bird, there’s hope that these vessels could be tracked,” she said. New technology is also playing a vital role with the use of aquatic drones and block chain technology—which can trace a fish from the moment it’s caught to the moment it’s sold to the retail market—further increasing accountability. Hoping the audience would also take on a role in ending illegal fishing, Petrossian made a request. “Please get involved in the process of ending illegal fishing. Get involved through research, help raise awareness, and make responsible choices so that hopefully our generation will not be the generation to witness the last fish swimming.”