Environmental Whistleblowers

A guest post and photos by Katarzyna Nowak. Nowak, a fellow at The Safina Center in New York, describes herself as a “wildlife conservation practitioner aspiring to bridge the science-policy-society interface.”

The zone north of 60 degrees latitude receives relatively little attention in the realm of wildlife crime. Vast areas of Alaska and the Yukon and their borderlands are stewarded by few people. For scale, Alaska is larger than Texas, Montana, and California combined and more than 3.5 times larger than the Yukon. A diversity of large, migratory mammals such as caribou, elk, moose, and Pacific walrus inhabit the region. Some are regarded as cultural keystone species that underpin the livelihoods of northerly indigenous people, yet their “value” gets contested and trivialized in the courts. Hunting pressure is high including at remote, fly-in only outposts.

CAPTION: A cutline through boreal forest demarcates the world’s longest undefended north-south international boundary, between the Yukon, Canada and Alaska, United States. Photo Credit: Katarzyna Nowak
Undefended north-south international boundary, between the Yukon, Canada and Alaska.

While whistleblowers have helped expose wildlife criminals by, for example, sending anonymous letters to Alaska Wildlife Troopers about illegal hunting activities, these instances have been few, raising the question: If an animal is poached in the far north, will someone be around to witness it? A variety of domestic and international routes lead into and out of the region by ground, air, and water, and traffic is increasing on northern shipping lanes.

In June 2018, while on fieldwork in the Yukon, I was sent a news article, “Black market animal smuggling is booming in Canada”. The Director General of Wildlife Enforcement for Environment Canada, Sheldon Jordan, described how his department, anticipating an unusually busy year of animal smuggling, had shifted more resources to the seizures team. According to Jordan, live animals are smuggled into Canada for the pet trade, and dead animals and their parts for décor, food, and traditional medicine, with a spike during summer months. He described a remote border crossing between Alaska and the Yukon—called Alcan-Beaver Creek—as having the second highest number of illegal incidents after metropolitan Vancouver. Is this because Customs and Border Protection are able to check a majority of vehicles or because smugglers see it as a convenient cross-border backdoor?

Wolverine fur
Seized wildlife items at the Beaver Creek border check point in the Yukon, Canada.

Upon visiting, I realized this crossing is unlike the northernmost one known as Top of the World, where U.S. and Canadian border authorities occupy the same site. At Alcan-Beaver Creek, the two border stations are separated by more than 20 miles. The in-between zone (under the jurisdiction of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at least until the cutline that demarcates the international border half a mile from the U.S. Alcan station) struck me as a loophole: You could leave Alaska, stash items in Canada, clear customs at Beaver Creek, and return later (short of the U.S. border) to pick up your illicit goods. You could then re-enter explaining you hadn’t left Canada—and get waved through. I know it’s possible, because I did it (minus the stashing of any items). Additionally, people living in Beaver Creek enter this in-between zone to go to a dumpsite.

Often the more serious offenses, beyond paperwork violations and unlawful transport, happen farther afield away from official border posts. Detection may depend on whistle-blowing, saying something if seeing something suspicious including on social media or hunt chat forums. Charges have been brought against hunters and outfitters in this way.
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Tuesday is the deadline to register for the Thursday, June 13 webinar on the role of citizens in enforcing environmental law. From the Environmental Law Institute:

Click here to register for the webinar: Collecting evidence of environmental crime

Around the world, significant progress has been made to establish legal frameworks for environmental protection. Many of these laws can help to put a stop to pollution or conserve natural resources in the United States, as well as foreign countries and international waters. However, the success of these laws is greatly hindered by a lack of enforcement.

Oftentimes, everyday citizens have evidence of environmental wrongdoing, or could easily collect it, but lack the know how to report such evidence to the authorities, or otherwise follow up on required procedures.


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Bow_of_the_Caribbean_Princess,_Liverpool_(geograph_2977707)
Caribbean Princess

Princess Cruises “depends on the oceans. We are committed to environmental practices that set a high standard for excellence and responsibility and help preserve the marine environment.” Its “Planet Princess” web page describes how the company does that through voluntary “environmental certification” and efforts to minimize air and water pollution.

The Department of Justice tells a different story. On Monday, the DOJ announced that the company was fined $20 million after violating the terms of probation from a 2017 citation for dumping polluted water into the ocean. This update notes that they continue to illegally dump plastic overboard as well.

A whistleblower – one of the ship’s engineers — originally brought that case to the authorities. That’s how regulators get most of their cases these days, according to a  Department of Justice official who spoke at a panel on the topic in April.
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A Greek shipping company and its chief engineer were indicted Tuesday for witness tampering and falsifying records to hide the illegal discharge of waste oil into the sea.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced the six-count indictment against Chartworld Shipping Corporation, Nederland Shipping Corporation, and Chief Engineer Vasileios Mazarakis. A federal grand jury in Wilmington, Delaware acted after hearing evidence that the company failed to keep accurate pollution control records and falsified records. The charges also include obstruction of justice and witness tampering, according to the DOJ.

The case was brought under the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS), a U.S. law that implements the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, commonly known as MARPOL. The law has a whistleblower provision and investigators say they use it routinely when witnesses come forward.


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Whistleblowers play a big role in rooting out corporate crime and government misdeeds that take place behind closed doors. They also have a role in flagging environmental crimes that happen out-of-site on the high seas.

On April 16, a panel of environmentalists, advocates and lawyers will discuss marine pollution laws and the role private citizens and whistleblowers play in the detecting off-shore crimes. The webinar will cover both the benefits and challenges of using “unconventional actors” in marine law compliance efforts.

Event sponsors include the Environmental Law Institute, the International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement (INECE) and National Whistleblower Center (NWC).

The groups note on website for the event that it is part of an ongoing series of discussions examining “how whistleblower laws, emerging technologies, and citizen engagement are transforming the landscape of environmental enforcement today. The series aims to build capacity among government agencies, non-profit organizations and individuals about whistleblower considerations.”
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Register here. 

From The Environmental Law Institute.

Illegal timber trade comprises 15-30% of the global timber trade according to Interpol, valued at USD$51-152 billion every year. Monitoring logging activities and enforcing forestry laws is notoriously difficult.

To celebrate this year’s International Day of Forests on March 21, join the Environmental Law Institute, the National

If poachers and wildlife trafficking networks operate like international criminal syndicates, why not treat them that way? That’s one approach outlined in a bill reintroduced in Congress today designed to bolster efforts to use whistleblower rewards to stop wildlife crime. 

The bill aims to address problems with existing wildlife whistleblower programs that were identified in May by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). It expands on existing whistleblower provisions and calls for new rules and the authority to enforce them.

The Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act was reintroduced by Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska – who calls himself an avid sportsman — and California Democrat John Garamendi, who describes himself a conservationist and outdoorsman.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) each currently have the option to reward whistleblowers who expose poaching, trafficking and other wildlife crimes. But, the 2018 GAO audit found that agencies’ programs are underused and inefficiently implemented.

The Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act would give more muscle to existing programs. The bill also would require that penalties and fine from prosecutions be redistributed to wildlife conservation efforts.


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“Only if we understand can we care. Only if we care will we help. Only if we help shall they be saved.” – Jane Goodall

On July 14, 1960, Jane Goodall first stepped foot in Gombe Stream National Park. Over the past 58 years, Goodall has taught humans around the world to understand, care about, and help chimpanzees. For this reason, July 14th is marked as World Chimpanzee Day.

Today, our closest biological cousin is an endangered species.

Since 2015, chimpanzees have been classified as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. Today, only 172,700 to 299,700 chimps are believed to remain; the population of western chimpanzees has decreased about 80% over the past quarter century. Human activities, including poaching, have been central to the precipitous drop in population. Not only are chimps slaughtered for bush meat, which is sold for profit in local marketplaces, but infant chimps are also kidnapped to be sold as pets. Other forms of human interaction with the environment such as logging have been detrimental to chimpanzee populations as they lead to habitat destruction.


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blue-ocean-with-three-shipsA review of 100 recent Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships (APPS) prosecutions available on Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) sheds light on the bipartisan support for the whistleblower provisions in combating ocean pollution. From President Clinton, to Bush, to Obama, and now to Trump, law enforcement has continued to utilize whistleblowers as a crucial components of APPS enforcement. The data shows that rewards were given to whistleblowers during both Republican and Democratic administrations.

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WASHINGTON, D.C. | July 5th, 2018—A group rallied outside the Embassy of Mexico on Thursday morning, urging the Mexican government to protect the vaquita, a porpoise native to the country’s waters. Representatives from the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), and other concerned persons braved the blistering summer weather and joined forces to shed light on the rapidly declining population of the rare porpoise. Signs with phrases such as SAVE THE VAQUITA and FEWER THAN 30 LEFT, written in both Spanish and English, were held by the group, who wore shirts reading “Extinction is Forever.” Some members of the rally took to the street with signs raised above their heads, trying to grab the attention of passing cars.

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