The Impacts Of Illegal Fishing And How Blockchain Can Improve The Industry


This article is part of a five-piece series with David Luna, CEO and President of Luna Global Networks & Convergence Strategies LLC.

Throughout history, the earth’s oceans have often been viewed as limitless resources.

Again and again, that view has been proven wrong.

Whether you look at the relentless whaling of the 19th century or the boom years of Cannery Row, each time our oceans’ resources are taken for granted, environments suffer.

In both cases, the industries cannibalized themselves, fishing at an unsustainable pace and paving the way for their own destruction as the natural resources they relied on became increasingly scarce.

Lessons like these should have taught society about the dangers of the illegal fishing industry that’s currently flourishing around the world. But too often, the quest for profits is more important.

“The illicit fishing industry is worth tens of billions of dollars a year,” says David Luna, a former U.S. Diplomat and national security official. “Environmental crime is one of the top five illicit crime areas because it’s so profitable for criminals.”

A 2016 study found that total global fish catches were falling three times faster than the UN had predicted — and named overfishing as the culprit. Now, any hope of getting the world’s overfishing problem under control involves cracking down on illegal activities. If left unchecked, it will have wide-reaching effects.

Illicit fishing affects both people and the environment.

Somewhere between 20% to 32% of the fish sold in the U.S. are caught illegally. And this creates a ripple effect throughout many different aspects of society.

When people think about forced labor and modern day slavery, they often think of deadly mines or brutal agricultural work in developing countries. But fishing is actually one of the largest industries in the world using forced labor, as roughly 2.6 billion people depend on fish as an important part of their diet.

It also produces incredible amounts of harmful waste.

Forty-six percent of the great garbage patch in the Pacific ocean is made up of fishing gear.

And overfishing can trigger environmental consequences that disrupt normal societal patterns, leading to a drop in the quality of life for many — and even increased migration.

With over 20 years examining illicit activities and corruption, Luna said:

“Illicit fishing is connected to other illegal activities that create a bigger overall threat. When illicit fishing becomes connected with other criminal areas like human trafficking or the destruction of coral reefs and poaching of endangered marine life, it presents a larger overall threat to human populations. And in some parts of the world, as it convergences with other illicit threats including corruption, organized crime, and terrorism, it creates bigger threat altogether — insecurity and instability.”

Blockchain-based systems can make an impact.

There are several ways that blockchain-based systems can make the fishing industry more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Remember the mass of fishing nets tangled in the Pacific? By registering types and quantities of nets on a blockchain, it will be possible for authorities to keep track of whether or not boats come back to port with the number of nets they set out with.

But a blockchain system can track more than just nets. Using globally agreed upon smart contracts, it will be possible to set quotas for sustainable fishing and enforce those quotas when ships come back to port.

Oftentimes, fish arriving in a port are misrepresented and mislabeled as more expensive fish to increase profit or bypass quotas. The blockchain can also be used to help solve this issue by improving labeling and track-and-trace capabilities from sourced waters to the consumer’s dinner table.

Another issue that leads to illicit fishing is the legal status of our oceans. Sovereign territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles off a country’s coasts, and exclusive economic zones extend 200 miles from shore. But the vast majority of the ocean is unregulated, and even marine sanctuaries are often difficult to police.

Blockchain systems may be able to help with global buy-in by making it easier for countries to share data on fishing quotas, product labeling, and repeat overfishing offenders.

The immutable and decentralized nature of blockchain means governments can also be more confident they aren’t be taken advantage of by less scrupulous market actors related to illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing.

It’s best to start with simple solutions.

The initial blockchain solutions posed for the fishing industry have to be simple and easy to implement.

Just ensuring documents and compliance reports are on a blockchain system will help to get people comfortable using the technology. More complex solutions can be developed only once participants have come to terms with the basic uses of blockchain technology.

The industry has to start small, offering the right incentives to commercial and independent fishermen. The most important thing to remember is that these solutions can’t be a threat to positive behaviors in the fishing industry. They can’t force people to make hard choices about selling their fish legally or on the black market.

Not all illegal fishing is done with criminal intent. There are many people all over the world who are just trying to make a living. Part of the goal should be to bring these people into the fold, so to speak.

The last thing anyone wants is a dystopian world where technology coldly enforces rules. The gray area that exists in all human interactions is a fundamental part of our lives.

Blockchain systems can simply help incentivize good behavior and trust while providing accurate information to both regulators and consumers alike.

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