Safe Seas Q&A

Safe Seas Q&A

In mid-June, Professor Christian Bueger, Dr Scott Edwards, and Professor Tim Edmunds sat down for a Q&A discussion to share their work on transnational organised crime at sea through the Safe Seas project. Safe Seas is an international network of scholars interested in maritime security in different regions of the world, whose work covers areas such as blue crime.

This work on building the blue crime evidence base has received funding through the Transnational organised crime: Deepening and broadening our understanding 2018 call from PaCCS and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

Q: Why should we pay more attention to crime at sea?

A: There is an awful lot of crime that takes place in the maritime arena. For example, transnational organized crime’s movements of illicit goods and criminal activities often take place at sea. Yet, when it comes to more traditional areas of security and law enforcement, there is a continuing legacy of sea blindness at the academic, policy, and practitioner levels.

There has been a lot of interesting work done on the sea from a security perspective with respect to great power competitions at sea and military confrontations, and  there is also a lot of good scholarly work on the law of the sea, but maritime security issues often falls through the cracks between those areas. Opening up the discussion about transnational organized crime at sea also opens some interesting themes and conversations between and within disciplines.

In recent years, alongside the rise of piracy off the coast of Somalia in the 2000s, there has been increased international attention to issues of piracy and illegal fishing. Here in the UK, the Brexit process has brought the discussion of maritime security further into focus. Here at Safe Seas, we hope to build on that momentum and increase discussion of blue crime more widely.

Q: Should piracy and illegal fishing be our prime areas of focus with respect to blue crime, or do we need to be thinking further in new directions?

A: We do need to think in broader terms about what we mean by blue crime, and there are number of reasons for that. Firstly, while piracy and illegal fishing are the most high-profile maritime activities, they are part of a whole pattern of organized criminal activities that take place at sea, and which sometimes have a much higher cost. Other examples include the smuggling of narcotics, people, illicit goods, arms, and/or wildlife. Secondly, while environmental crimes at sea are significant, they extend beyond illegal fishing to include issues of pollution, illegal resource extraction, and mining critical infrastructure. There are synergies and interlinkages between different expressions of blue crime, and it is not helpful to think about these issues in specific, compartmentalized ways. To understand these patterns of criminality, you need to understand the bigger picture.

You can learn more about why we should pay more attention to blue crime, and the pattern of criminal activities which contribute to blue crime, in the video below:


Q: You have used the term “blue crime” a few times. There’s a forthcoming article in Marine Policy which emerged from TOCAS and which argues that we should talk about “blue crime” rather than “crime at sea”. Why do you think that “blue crime” is the best label for these criminal activities?

A: Blue crime is a pragmatic concept that tries to let us get to the heart of some of the security issues that occur at sea through understanding how and where they take place. The issues ‘blue crime’ encompasses allows us to open this space for broader discussions, particularly in opening up the space between legal and criminological discussions.

We are building our own definitions because we found some of the more established frameworks for examining organized crime at sea were often too restrictive, particularly where they were legal concepts and approaches. We also noticed that issues of legality can differ, particularly when trying to determine how national laws apply at sea or where crimes are conducted by vessels of uncertain nationality. The notion of blue crime is rooted in legal concepts, but also recognizes some of the limitations and problems they have. For example, it allows us to draw on some of the work around green criminology and activities that cause significant harms at sea even where there might not be obvious human victims, such as crimes which have consequences for marine biodiversity.

Q: You have argued that this concept of “blue crime” also pushes people to explore the different synergies and commonalities across forms of criminality. Can you tell us a bit more about these synergies?

A: There are synergies in a couple of areas. Often, the entry requirements for engaging in blue crime are relatively low. You need access to a boat, seamanship skills, and perhaps access to a gun. Those entry requirements can be applied equally to piracy, arms smuggling, narcotics trafficking, and legitimate fishing activities. So, the same people can adapt and engage in multiple kinds of legitimate and/or criminal activities. Moreover, the criminal networks which support these activities are often enduring and adaptive. So, a lot of evidence suggests that piracy networks off the coast of Somalia have adapted to counter-piracy measures by becoming involved in people smuggling and trafficking.

Using ‘blue crime’ as the lens for these discussions forces us to look more broadly at why and how these crimes take place, the connections between what happens on sea and what happens on land, the roles of organized criminal groups in orchestrating these activities, and what the underlying root causes of this criminality might be. For example, we know that blue crime often takes place because people in coastal communities feel that their livelihoods may collapse for whatever reason, and blue crime may offer a way of securing a livelihood. This points us to look at sustainable development, social exclusion, and the international political economy more generally. The problem with simply taking a law enforcement approach to these issues is that it does not offer the same glimpse into the structural reasons as to why these crimes are happening.

Q: Why is it so important to have a good evidence-base to inform our understanding of blue crime, and what work have you been doing to contribute to this evidence-base?

A: Good policies and responses require good evidence, and we have found that in a lot of cases, a weak evidence base has led to weak responses and poor policies concerning blue crime. Consequently, we are developing a centralized ‘one stop shop’ which aims to be an accessible resource for anyone interested in blue crime or maritime security and will be particularly useful for policymakers and law enforcement. This centralized evidence base, which will be launched this autumn, aims to address a few key challenges:

  1. The evidence base aims to be able to inform people on the kind of core issues around blue crimes and raise awareness of blue crime.
  2. While there is a lot of evidence about certain crimes, such as piracy and human trafficking, the different sources of evidence in these areas are underlined by very different perspectives, creating a disparate understanding and making it difficult for policymakers, practitioners, and academics to navigate. Those perspectives need to be brought together in one place.
  3. Improving the evidence-base is one way of addressing the current lack of understanding about how blue crimes intersect with one another. Right now, this lack of understanding of the dynamics between different forms of blue crime inhibits appropriate responses from enforcement agencies.
  4. There is some great research out there which suffers from problems of accessibility, for example, it might not be readily available in the public domain. We aim to bring evidence together and make it accessible in a centralized way.

I think there is an appetite for work which provides reliable data in order to inform responses and to help convey the significance of maritime security and blue crime to governments and policymakers who otherwise might suffer from sea blindness or which see maritime security primarily in terms of naval responses.

Q: Your work on transnational organized crime at sea has focused on the Indo-Pacific. What has influenced your focus on that region?

A: There has been a long tendency in international relations to view global politics in terms of land-based regions and interactions between those regions. However, when we start to examine global politics from the sea, what we mean by regions shifts. Studying the Indo-Pacific region lets us see the interlinkages between East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia in a new transnational way. We can also see where innovations happen in maritime security in the Western Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, and how these maritime security measures are then emulated elsewhere. Moreover, this region has become emblematic of issues in blue crime in a lot of ways. Piracy is one example of that. So, the region gives us the opportunity to examine the various aspects of how blue crime manifests, as well as seeing in practice how responses to blue crime are formulated, what works, and how those experiences get shared.

You can learn more about the evidence-base which informs our understanding of blue crime, and the Safe Seas focus on the Pacific Region, in the video below:

Q: How is the covid-19 pandemic transforming blue crime?

A: There appears to have been some degree of suppression of blue crime, particularly some forms of smuggling, because of states entering lockdown and introducing tougher entry controls. However, the pressure of the pandemic has also created new opportunities for criminals. It is still early days, but there does seem to be quite a significant uptick in piracy activities in the Gulf of Guinea. In the longer term, I suspect that the organized crime groups well-placed to thrive under pandemic conditions are those which are most organized and best resourced – such as those who have been able to stockpile narcotics. The concentration in more organized groups is a really worrying trend.

Those engaging in legal fishing have also struggled during the lockdown, and I suspect that over the long term we will see a lot of economic deprivation and cuts in livelihoods in some coastal communities. We know from previous experiences, such as the 2008 financial crisis, that economic deprivation can push people to turn to blue crime, whether it is illegal fishing or smuggling to help make ends meet. So, there is a risk that we will see a more conducive environment for engaging in blue crime emerge alongside the strengthening of the core criminal groups which have been able to weather the storm through the pandemic.

You cannot understand the impact of covid-19 without understanding how that affects what is happening to people in coastal communities, fishing communities, and regions where maritime crime is an issue.