Clamping down on fraud on the waves

Customs officer Jerry Tukker about his versatile work for the Maritime Information Centre of the Coastguard: “We scan the North Sea for virtually every type of fraud.”

Customs official Jerry Tukker recently accepted a special international award on behalf of the Netherlands Coastguard: the MAOC/N Award. In this way, ‘his’ Maritime Information Centre was decorated for its contribution to fighting the smuggling of drugs via European waters. “However, we have many more issues in our sights, not just narcotics,” Tukker emphasises. “We scan the North Sea for virtually every type of fraud.”

The Netherlands Coastguard is a network organisation formed by the bundling of forces of six departments (and all investigation and enforcement services belonging to them). All of these parties make staff and resources available, allowing the Coastguard to perform its three core tasks on the North Sea: service provision (such as emergency response and maritime traffic research), enforcement (such as general policing, customs supervision, and monitoring fishing), and maritime security (this mainly consists of analysing so-called pre-arrival information). “Traditionally, Customs has provided a relatively high number of staff for the enforcement duty,” Tukker says. “This is because Customs used to be at sea for 60 hours per week with our monitoring vessels – way more than all other services. For we have an interest in being present on the North Sea. At present, by having provided 20 members of staff, we still make a sizeable contribution to the partnership. For example, here in Den Helder, Customs has provided a policy officer and an analyst, as well as staff for the Enforcement Desk, a sort of control room that is available 24/7. Customs staff is also active on board of our patrol vessels and planes.”

Deviating shipping movements
Another three Customs officials work for the Maritime Information Centre (MIK-NL), which Tukker heads. They cooperate closely with their colleagues from the police, the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee, and others. “Our role within the Coastguard is that of providing central risk organisation,” Tukker explains. “We collect a highly diverse range of data, translating them into specific monitoring assignments for our own operational units and for those of our partner services. Such data are derived from all sorts of sources: the day reports made by the said services, criminal investigations, media, you name it. We filter all sorts of risks from these data, granting them our attention. A good example, from the field of narcotics, is the police investigation into decoded encrypted messages by criminals. These showed quite a bit about smuggling methods: drugs dropped on the open sea in a certain way. This allowed us to deduce that the ships concerned had to abruptly change course at a specific time, producing striking shipping movements that we can become aware of using our radar systems. In principle, our prime focus is on deviating shipping behaviour: does the vessel suddenly change its course, does it repeatedly change its speed, does it suddenly start drifting? In every such case, we wonder: what could be the reason for this behaviour? And we start investigating it. These types of indicators also allows us to draw up profiles to run on our automated risk detection systems.”

Transatlantic drug transports
The topic has already been mentioned: drugs. The fight against the smuggling of narcotics by sea is a key aspect of the work of the Coastguard. The organisation this year even received an award in this field: the Award of the Maritime Analysis Operations Centre/Narcotics, MAOC/N in short. Tukker had the honour of receiving the award at the MAOC headquarters in Lisbon. “The MAOC is an international network by which the police services of various countries join forces to tackle transatlantic cocaine transports. It tries to map the ships that come our way via the Azores, getting as close as possible to the ports of departure in South America and the Caribbean. The focus can be on pleasure yachts, coasters, smaller trawlers – in fact, on every type of vessel that can be used for this illegal practice. The Coastguard provides the Maritime Intelligence Team of the police with all sorts of data on such vessels and their shipping movement history, their occupants, and possibly the shipping companies… We retrieve those data from all sorts of files. Ultimately this information is provided to the MAOC by the liaison of the Dutch police in Portugal, and the MAOC can decide to follow a vessel and investigate it. Over the past few years, these ties have resulted in successful interceptions on the ocean waves. It is for this reason that our Maritime Information Centre received this award.”

In the field of tackling the international drug trade, fruitful cooperation exists with the Customs National Tactical Centre (DLTC), as well as with the police. Tukker: “We provide our Customs colleagues with the names of all ships leaving Latin America. Using their own information position, they are then able to analyse whether certain drug-related risks are associated with a vessel. And this allows them to anticipate on things by readying their control units in the port of arrival. In turn, we receive information on approaching vessels the DLTC has in its sights for an inspection from it. For example, it may inform us that a risk exists a vessel will drop narcotics on the open sea. This allows us to send out a Coastguard vessel, airplane, or helicopter to check on things.”

Wider scope
“So you can definitely call the MIK a linchpin in the fight against maritime drug smuggling,” Tukker continues. “However, our scope is much more extensive: we in fact look for all types of fraud committed on the North Sea. On behalf of the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate, for example, we check for ships dumping the contents of their slop tanks. These usually consist of fuels or other chemicals that can be very harmful to the natural environment and is, therefore, a form of environmental crime. The same applies to so-called blending at sea, which is the mixing of goods like mineral oils on board of a ship. This, too, is something we have our eyes on, as this, too, is prohibited due to the associated dangers for life in and around the sea. In addition, possible tax risks are associated with this illegal practice, as the mixing of two goods results in a new product being created during transport, to which a higher tax rate would apply than on the declared goods. This may cause countries not to receive the excise duty due, for example, thus turning it into an item of interest to Customs.”

These sorts of intersections often occur in the duties of the Coastguard, Tukker states. “Following the MSC Zoe disaster in early 2019, we at the request of the Human Environment and Transport Directorate started monitoring from the air whether container lashings were not undone too soon. For this may result in these containers going overboard in rough weather. When we find that lashings have indeed been undone too early, we not only report to the Directorate, but also to Customs. For this may indicate that certain containers might carry narcotics, which must be removed quickly in port.”

Constant innovation
The fact that the Coastguard is keeping an eye on container transport safety in response to the recent incident on the Wadden Sea in itself indicates that the duties of the organisation continue to increase and become more varied. “Current events and developments mean that we get ever more on our plate,” Tukker says. “Take maritime security, for example. This is a relatively new task that continues growing in importance, also due to European legislation. Or consider the increasing number of wind farms at sea. As the Netherlands is becoming ever more dependent on these farms for its electricity, this renders us vulnerable. We are therefore becoming co-responsible for guarding them. It is great that the Coastguard can work for the benefit of society in so many ways. And we also receive the resources to perform our duties. We are investigating systems that allow us to receive information from satellites and use it for our work, in addition to radar and AIS* signals. In the short term, we will get two new patrol planes, equipped with the most advanced radar technology, night vision equipment, and cameras for producing heat images. We also wish to swap some of our patrol vessels for more modern ships. We constantly look ahead of us and continue to innovate, thus remaining future-proof.”

* AIS: Automatic Identification System. Many vessels are equipped with an AIS transponder, which submits signals on the location and speed of the ship, among other things.

The Coastguard in brief
The Coastguard is a cooperative partnership by the Ministries of Defence, Justice & Security, Finance, Infrastructure & Water Management, Agriculture, Nature Management & Food Quality, and Economic Affairs & Climate. Important partners of the organisation include the Royal Netherlands Sea Rescue Institution, the Amsterdam and Rotterdam Port Authorities, and the North Atlantic Coastguard Forum.

The Coastguard’s duties centre on service provision and enforcement. Service provision includes maritime assistance, search and rescue, limiting disasters and incidents, vessel traffic services, fairway marking, maritime traffic research, and clearing out explosives. Enforcement includes general policing, customs supervision, monitoring of fishing, vessel traffic monitoring, and border controls.

So as to emphasise the unity of the organisation, all boarding officers (those members of staff boarding ships) recently received a Coastguard uniform, where they used to be wearing the uniform of their own services.

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