Oceans Under Threat From Illegal Fishing

An In-Depth Feature in World Wildlife Fund Magazine Summer 2015

Life and Law: WWF’s Michele Kuruc on the power of law enforcement to save the world’s seas

Growing up just outside of Washington, DC, I had a good vantage point on what the US government does: My father, who was a police officer working in the city’s northeast quadrant, would come home with stories from walking his beat. Stories of good people, struggling people, people who broke the law—and the police’s duty to help. At his side, I was absorbing the importance of the rule of law.

In the late 1970s, my career aspirations led me to law school. This was at a time of new and exciting developments, as the first environmental laws—from the Clean Air Act to the Endangered Species Act—were being enacted by the US Congress.

It is easy to have a romanticized view of how these policies guided people’s interactions with nature, but I knew I couldn’t operate in the world of theory. I wanted to understand the real issues people faced.

Coming out of law school, I worked for a federal appellate judge in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on cases of all types. My job was to listen to the arguments, be prepared, and analyze and evaluate the full case fairly. Those skills led me to the US Justice Department, where I worked on civil and criminal cases for the Wildlife and Marine Resources division. These were some of the most interesting cases I could imagine: working with the investigators in the field to tackle everything from the theft of rare saguaro cactus and the illegal hunting of grizzly bears to the smuggling of rare birds and reptiles.

I always needed to feel I was making a contribution to conservation in my own way, and that sense of purpose only grew during my time at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There, I worked on a once-in-a-lifetime case—to bring to justice three men who were smuggling large quantities of rock lobster from South Africa to the United States.

The men involved directed a fishing company that had been illegally fishing and importing these seafood products into the US since 1987. To do so, they were bribing fishing inspectors, conspiring to create fraudulent export documents and exporting the product illegally to the US. On arrival, the rock lobster was shipped to a seafood plant where women, who had been tricked into leaving South Africa for a better life, would process the lobster for transportation to stores around the country. All this illegal activity was driven by the desire for high profits. The men all plead guilty to conspiracy and smuggling and were ordered to pay nearly $30 million in retribution—an amount still being contested, and possibly to grow.

Read the full article and in-depth feature on WWF’s website