chain for illicit marine products involves a range of actors including fishers
(individuals or commercial vessels), wholesalers, intermediaries,
trans-shippers, manufacturers, artisans, exporters and importers, wholesalers,
crime groups and individuals operating legitimate businesses, sometimes in
collusion, operate at every level of the supply chain, undermining efforts to
trace, regulate or control the trade. Where parallel legal and illegal trades
exist, products can be quickly laundered into the legal supply chain.
from IUU fishing, poaching and forced labour to document fraud, drug smuggling
and human trafficking.
▼ Infographic: How illegally caught marine species enter legal supply chains
The following infographic gives a simplified
overview of the supply chain and its vulnerabilities:
▼ Harvest networks
source marine species globally, co-opting local supply chains to harvest species for the international
trade. When local suppliers and local markets become embedded in global supply
chains, depletion occurs very quickly, particularly for
species and in source locations with few controls.
Illegal harvest involves both individual
local fishers and large
commercial fishing vessels. In
some cases illegal harvest is coordinated and intensive, such as in coral
poaching, while in other instances, such as seahorse trafficking, species are
consolidated over time and sold to traders.
- Individual collectors are often small-scale fishers engaged in harvesting to supply intermediaries
and wholesalers. They may be witting or unwitting participants in the
- Commercial fishing vessels, sometimes as part of large fleets, may opportunistically poach by keeping animals caught through bycatch for illegal sale. They may also be configured specifically to harvest protected species to traffic, such as Chinese and Philippine vessels in the South China Sea, Coral Sea and just off the exclusive economic zone of Japan.
species popular in Asia, trafficking often follows a “roving bandit” pattern.
Traffickers fan out across the globe to identify plentiful populations of
wildlife, tap into local networks and begin trading species internationally.
Harvest often follows a boom and bust cycle, where new populations are
discovered leading to a boom before they are very quickly exploited.
pattern occurs time and again, from coral to sea cucumbers to giant clams.
▼ Case study: Laundering within eel trafficking networks
The illegal European eel trade is thought to be worth more than a billion dollars annually.
All exports of European eels, whether alive or dead, are prohibited through CITES and
within European law. Because the eels cannot be bred in captivity, this means all
European eels traded outside of Europe are products of trafficking, and all proceeds from
their sale is illicit.
The trade in eels often involves ranching, a process which uses wild-caught juveniles
raised in farms to supply the trade. Legitimate traders/businesses and wildlife traffickers
often interact to harvest wild animals to supply ranches.
Baby eels (elvers) are illegally caught in Europe and trafficked to Asia in air passenger
luggage in oxygenated bags. The live eels are often falsely labelled as non-endangered
fish if they are declared at all. One suitcase can carry 50,000 elvers, making eels the
most trafficked animal globally.
Once they reach farms in China, the eels are grown to their full size – up to a metre and
a half – and can then be sold on the market for the equivalent of over USD 10 each.
Trafficked European eels are regularly mislabelled and exported to Europe or to North
America as packaged, processed eel products.
Once harvested, marine species are quickly consolidated for processing and packaging
in preparation for onward transport. Live species such as eels, ornamental fish, invertebrates, and corals are separated and stored alive. In the case of corals or molluscs destined for the jewellery or curio trade, they may be dried or otherwise processed.
Criminals operating in legal businesses play a key role at this stage, laundering wildlife
into the supply chain through legitimate marine processing facilities and marine products
trading companies. At the same time, organised crime groups have become adept at
large-scale wildlife processing, as evidenced by sophisticated abalone and shark fin
processing. Warehouses, restaurants and even homes can serve as illegal marine products
Transhipment at sea has received growing attention in relation to IUU fishing, and the
same mechanism could allow marine species traffickers to evade port controls.
Unscrupulous marine products traders obtain or forge fraudulent documentation to trade
wildlife as legal before arranging shipment through front companies or within combined
legal/illegal shipments to markets.
Organised crime groups similarly obfuscate wildlife for clandestine shipments at this phase,
smuggling high-value species in luggage or via air freight, and shipping large
consignments of goods hidden within containers of cheap commodities.
- Live fish and corals are typically exported via air freight and laundered into the legal trade though falsified permits and other export documents.
- Bulk shipments of dried corals are often shipped by sea freight.
- European eels are typically trafficked in several ways: hidden within passenger luggage inside oxygenated bags or shipped as cargo, mis-declared as fresh fish, or hidden amongst live seafood to avoid detection. Importers are said to earn between EUR 800-1,500 upon arrival.
- Marine turtles are off-loaded from commercial vessels at trading hubs in China or Vietnam, where they are locally processed before being exported or sold into local curio markets.
- Species such as sharks and sea cucumbers that can only be traded from certain jurisdictions are often smuggled into those jurisdictions then mislabelled for export, though large-scale smuggling persists.
▼ Case study: Laundering through neighbouring
areas where neighbouring states
do not provide the same level of protection for a species that exists
states’ territorial waters, traffickers can easily harvest and transport
wildlife for export.
For example, sea
cucumber networks heavily poach species in protected waters in Southern
India, where the trade in all sea cucumbers is fully restricted. They work
through local fisherman to harvest the creatures, then either move them onshore
for clandestine processing and shipment to Asia or move them via small boats
directly to Sri Lanka upon capture. Sri Lanka’s thriving marine products export
sector provides numerous laundering opportunities, allowing tonnes
cucumbers to exit the region mixed in with legal shipments.
On the other side of the world, various reports
testify to the trafficking of CITES-listed shark species from Ecuador to
export to Hong Kong, via both legal and illegal border crossings and using
Once imported, shipments pass to wholesalers and
distribution to manufacturers and retailers.
destination points, particularly in Asia, trafficked species can often be
openly traded. However, even where laws on importing restricted
strong, complex global supply chains and local situations present serious
challenges to traceability and enforcement.