Blue Crime: Transnational Organised Crime at Sea

Blue Crime: Transnational Organised Crime at Sea

This week, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with the University of Bristol’s Professor Timothy Edmunds to discuss his work on blue crime. This project has been supported by a 2018 grant on Deepening and Broadening our Understanding of Transnational Organised Crime which was funded through PaCCS by the ESRC. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today about your work on transnational organised crime at sea! How did you end up working on maritime security?

Several years ago, I bumped into my now co-investigator Professor Christian Bueger from the University of Copenhagen at a conference in Belgrade. At the time he was working on piracy while I was working on land-based security sector reform.

I’d been interested in the role of security institutions, such as police, intelligence agencies and  armed forces, in processes of political and organisational and change throughout my academic career. While I’d long been aware of an absence of discussion surrounding maritime security concerns in most mainstream security reform publications, most of my early work was on land-based security reform in places like the Western Balkans.

Christian and I had a discussion around the need for more serious work on maritime security sector reform issues at that conference, which led to a grant with the British Academy on security-building and capacity building in the Western Indian Ocean. Our work initially focused on piracy but became much wider than that as part of this project.

What prompted the widening of the project’s scope?

During the course of that project we saw that there were interesting things happening in how what was becoming known as the maritime security agenda had spread out from the piracy problem to encompass other forms of transnational organised crime at sea, including the smuggling of drugs, arms and other illicit goods, illegal fishing, human trafficking and environmental protection. Fascinatingly, the governance framework responding to these challenges was bringing together, through informal processes, a sometimes counter-intuitive network of actors who were often working together effectively, but whose collaborations were understudied.

We also recognized that there was a gap in the dialogue surrounding maritime security reform which was particularly problematic for some parts of the global South, where countries with rich marine resources often don’t have the capacity to protect their waters from serious criminal activities or predation from international actors in relation to things like industrial fishing or hazardous waste dumping.

This double angle led into what is now the Transnational Organised Crime at Sea (TOCAS) project, which examines interlinkages between different components of maritime security and maritime crime, and the responses to them across regions.

Why is it important for us to understand those interlinkages? 

What’s quickly become apparent to us is that you can’t really look at one element of the picture without thinking about how it impacts and relates to other elements of maritime security.

The obvious example, which we have explored in some of our published work, is piracy off the coast of Somalia. That problem emerged in part as a consequence of the collapse of the Somali state. With the Somali government no longer able to police the waters, foreign vessels began to prey on fish stocks off the coast, and part of the emergence of Somali piracy was at least initially a response by fishermen to the predation by those vessels. Pirates portrayed themselves as an informal coast guard responding to the theft of their fish. From there, piracy became an alternative livelihood for some people with few other options and fairly swiftly developed into a much more organised and rapacious criminal activity.

There was a powerful and effective counter-piracy response off the coast of Somalia and while the problem has largely died away there since 2012, most of the evidence suggests that the pirate networks have not . Instead, they’ve spread into other forms of organised criminal activity, including smuggling weapons and people. It’s these kinds of interconnections which are significant. Applying pressure to one type of criminal activity can result in others popping up elsewhere. If the criminal organisational structures are in place for one kind of crime, these are quite easily transferable elsewhere, particularly given that resources needed to engage in maritime crimes – a boat, possibly a gun and people with the skills and willingness to use these – are quite widespread in many coastal communities.

At this point, how well do we understand the scope and nature of blue crime?

In February of 2019, the UN Security Council held its first debate on transnational organised crime at sea, but was unable to come up with a resolution or to make a decision on how to address blue crime because they couldn’t agree on  the scope, meaning and reach of the concept.

One of the things we’re working on in TOCAS is how can we conceptualise transnational organised crime at sea in a way that recognises its diversity, but also provides a unified basis for action. We’re doing this through a systematic cross-disciplinary literature review, developing our own conceptual and theoretical work, and the creation of a comprehensive online evidence base which we will launch as an online wiki in the next couple of months.

What have been some of the key takeaways for this project thus far?

There are several takeaways from the project so far. The first and most obvious, is that maritime crime is about much more than just piracy. It involves a whole range of difference issues and that these are often interconnected with each other in various ways. In the TOCAS project we identify three broad categories of blue crime in this respect: crimes against mobility such as piracy, criminal flows focused around smuggling and environmental crimes such as illegal fishing.

We also need to consider what kind of problem blue crime represents. There’s a been a tendency to treat these challenges as matters of either security or law enforcement, which is fine up to a point but often does little to address their underlying causes and structures. As I noted before, cracking down on one form of crime in one area can lead to it popping in another form elsewhere. Fundamentally, are these problems of security? Of law enforcement and criminal justice? Or of development and political economy? How do all these things interact?

That in turn tells us something about effective responses. Enforcement and policing at sea can have an important deterrent effect but do little to address either the land based organisational structures behind the crimes or their structural causes. In essence, blue crime is a problem of both land and sea. It incorporates issues of enforcement and policing yes, but also sustainable development in coastal communities, criminal investigative capacities on land and the role of – often external – markets in driving the demand for goods such as illegally caught fish.

Finally, that points to the need for the various actors involved in fighting blue crime to work together in doing so. That involves cooperation, coordination between states, but also between different organisations and agencies within states, and also – importantly – meaningful engagement with private or community actors like shippers or coastal communities.  

What are the next steps for you in this project?

Our next steps pick up on my last point about responses. We plant to explore regional best practices and lessons learned in the governance of, and the fight against, transnational organised crime at sea.

The work we’ve undertaken thus far has been broad and conceptual, so in the next phase of the project we’re going to zoom in. We’re about to embark on regional case studies in the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. In each of those regions, we’ll do a deep dive into the institutions and organizations that are engaged in that region’s flight against organised crime at sea. We want to map who these players are, and to understand how they work together and communicate, and how experience is shared between different organisations, countries and regions. As part of this field work, we’ll be running co-production events with maritime stakeholders in each region.  

Reflecting on your academic career thus far, are there things you learned in your research on land-based security reform and governance in post-communist contexts that has influenced the way you think about what you’re working on now?

There is a great deal of read across between these kinds of issues, particularly with respect to international capacity building and reform sector methods.

Part of the growing interest in maritime security has also been a consequence of the proliferation of international responses aimed at assisting developing countries in their maritime security sector capacities and institutions. That process mirrors what happens on land with security sector reform, and these types of initiatives experience a set of common pathologies.

For example, in both land-based and maritime security sector reform, there’s a habit of applying one-size-fits-all solutions to capacity-building which are derived from the experiences of those who have not paid enough attention to local knowledge and the specifics of the problems individual countries face.

I also think that there are some real success stories that have come out of things such as the response to piracy which highlight the importance of informal structures for those operating in security reform more broadly. These informal structures are a different way of encouraging constellations of access, in which actors can come together to identify and work on shared problems while creating a lower bar for participation and effective coordinated action.


Professor Timothy Edmunds’ work on Transnational Organised Crime at Sea: New Evidence, for Better Responses (TOCAS) is part of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Transnational organised crime: Deepening and broadening our understanding 2018 Call. Projects which are part of this call began in January 2019 and explore issues including crime at sea, human trafficking, cyber-crime, crime in Africa and the overlap between crime and extremism.

Photo credit: Steve Parkinson – ‘Pirates’ –