Corruption threatens the decline in world fisheries

WASHINGTON (AP) — As Indonesia’s fisheries minister, Edhy Prabowo has been charged with protecting one of his country’s most precious resources: lobsters so small they can fit on the tip of a finger.

The waters off the nation’s many islands and archipelagos were once teeming with lobsters. But overfishing in recent decades has decimated the crustacean population, so much so that fishermen have turned to catching the young. They gathered them by the thousands and shipped them to Vietnamese lobster farms, where the pups are raised to adulthood and sold mostly to traders in China to meet the huge demand for the seafood.

Concerned that such harvesting was harming lobster populations, Indonesia’s fisheries ministry banned the export of the tiny crustaceans in 2016. Shortly after taking office, Prabowo lifted the ban. Court documents show that just one month later, in June 2020, the minister accepted a $77,000 bribe from a seafood supplier to grant him a permit to sell the hatchlings overseas.

The money kept flowing. In his short time as minister, Prabowo accepted nearly $2 million in bribes. He was arrested in 2020 by Indonesian authorities, having used graft to buy 26 road bikes, Old Navy children’s clothes, Louis Vuitton handbags, Rolex watches and two luxury pens. Prabowo, 50, was sentenced to five years in prison for corruption. His attorney declined to comment.

Prabowo’s case is not an anomalous case. At least 45 government officials have been accused of corruption over the past two decades, the AP found. The allegations range from high-ranking officials like Prabowo accepting large payments from fishing companies to secure lucrative contracts, to low-level public officials accepting a few thousand dollars to ignore fishermen bringing illegal catches ashore.

“Fisheries corruption can have devastating impacts on marine ecosystems and the local communities that may depend on them,” said Ben Freitas, ocean policy manager at the Washington-based World Wildlife Fund. “It’s a global problem.”

The situation is more critical in areas managed by developing countries because many industrialized countries have already overexploited their waters, forcing their fishing vessels to go far. Many developing coastal countries depend on fishing for millions of jobs and to feed their people.

Those wishing to hide their operations or pay bribes to get around restrictions have found fishing to be a welcoming industry.

“The lack of accountability, I believe, is even greater in the fisheries sector than in other environmentally-related businesses,” said Juhani Grossmann of the Basel Institute on Governance, who is working on anti-corruption efforts with the US fisheries ministry. Indonesia.

At least with illicit lumber operations, Grossmann said, “you don’t have a different shell company for every single truck.”

The PA review found that most of the bribery and bribery cases were low-level schemes, like the one in India last year in which prosecutors accused two fishery officers of extorting $1,100 to approve subsidies for a fish farm. Another fisherman involved said he bribed Malaysian officers with at least $11,000 for every boat they agreed not to report.

But some involve global financial institutions. In 2021, Swiss bank Credit Suisse admitted to fraudulently funding a massive loan to Mozambique to expand its tuna fishing fleet. A contractor handling the loan paid $150 million in bribes to Mozambican government officials.

And in the “Fishrot” scandal, Namibian authorities say Icelandic seafood company Samherji paid about $6 million in bribes to Namibian officials to be allowed to fish in the country’s waters. Samherji denied committing any crimes.

Stephen Akester, a fisheries management consultant who has worked in Africa and South Asia for four decades, cited a long history of foreign companies, especially from China, engaging in corrupt relationships with fisheries officials.

“They exploited the weakness of these governments for which any kind of income was a lot of money, even small dollars,” he said. “And that continues to this day.”

In The Gambia, a small West African nation nestled along the coast of Senegal, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Fisheries and Water Resources, Bamba Banja, was accused in 2021 of accepting a bribe from a Chinese company to free up a vessel held for illegal fishing. The case is ongoing; Banja’s lawyer told AP the fisheries secretary denies any wrongdoing.

Corruption is not limited to developing countries. Malta’s fisheries director was in 2019 linked to a criminal ring seeking to launder illegally caught bluefin tuna that arrived in Spain from Italy and Malta via French ports. El Confidencial newspaper said Spanish police intercepted a phone call in which the director was heard telling a tuna magnate: “You have to pay me.” Malta’s fisheries ministry said the director was on unpaid leave.

The cases AP investigates likely represent a small fraction of the corruption that occurs daily as fish is transported and sold around the world.

In Ghana, for example, the fisheries ministry has not been marked by any major corruption scandals. Yet the Environmental Justice Foundation, which has been investigating abuses in the fishing industry for two decades, released a report last year documenting how the West African nation has become trapped in “a culture of corruption in which bribery and ‘intimidation pervades all levels of fisheries management.”

Kyei Kwadwo Yamoah advocates for better fisheries management in Ghana as Coordinator of the Fisheries Alliance. In examining infringements reported by observers on fishing vessels for a World Bank project in 2016, Yamoah found large and unexplained gaps in enforcement. The government had penalized some companies, he said, but others were undoubtedly granted renewed fishing licenses.

“There was no clarity as to why these vessels weren’t even booked or sanctioned, while there was a clear case of breaking the law,” Yamoah said.

Overfishing and illegal fishing has driven Ghana’s fish stocks to near collapse, prompting presidential action and endangering the livelihoods and health of millions of Ghanaians.

The situation, Yamoah said, is becoming dire: some days the fishermen spend all day in the water and come back with nothing.


Associated Press reporters Colleen Barry in Milan, Ciarán Giles in Madrid, Joshua Goodman in Miami, Abdoulie John in The Gambia, Sheikh Saaliq in New Delhi, and Edna Tarigan and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta contributed to this report.


Follow the reporters on Twitter: @FuTingBJ, @GraceEkpu and @helenwieffering.

Contact AP’s global investigation team at [email protected] or


This story was supported by funding from the Walton Family Foundation and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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