Environmental crime networks such as the notorious Irish Rathkeale Rovers pose a “key threat” to global security, according to the EU police co-operation agency.
Europol said that these specialist organised crime gangs are threatening the survival of species and imposing “enormous” financial costs on society.
The Rathkeale Rovers are, not for the first time, mentioned by name by Europol, this time in its report 'Environmental Crime'.
It said the family-based network, originally from the Limerick town, moved into wildlife trafficking — particularly the lucrative trade in rhino horns — after being involved in “drugs, cigarettes, and counterfeiting”.
In addition to the rise and threat posed by wildlife trafficking, Europol said illegal fishing is a “growing threat to the EU”.
Ireland’s ability to combat this threat has been repeatedly highlighted, including last November in a report by the Oireachtas Committee on Defence and Foreign Affairs, which found that the recruitment and retention crisis in the Naval Service was impacting its ability to board fishing vessels in its effort to protect an industry worth more than €1.6bn.
The flag officer commanding naval service, Commodore Michael Malone, told the committee that the strength of the service has fallen by more than 25% since 1998, from 1,114 personnel to 883.
As reported in the Irish Examiner last week, that has since dropped to 841, and around 30 more personnel had officially signalled they want to leave and are awaiting discharge papers.
In the report, Europol director Catherine De Bolle said environmental crime “has become a key threat to global security”.
She said: “Crimes against the environment threaten the survival of all living species and have an enormous financial impact, which is set to increase further. Aside from the economic losses for all of society, organised crime is also partially responsible for climate change.”
The report said the World Bank estimated wildlife trafficking, illegal EU fishing, and illegal logging to be worth somewhere between €1 trillion and €2 trillion.
It said illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU) was a “growing threat to the EU”.
It said criminal networks use legal companies to catch fish in breach of national and international laws.
It said this trade involves fraud, corruption, tax evasion, money laundering, human exploitation, and labour crimes and that some of the gangs are also involved in drug trafficking and smuggling of migrants.
The report flags increased criminal interests in money going into the renewable energy sector.
"In the future, criminals will increasingly seek to infiltrate and exploit both environmental industry and climate finance," it said.
It called for increases in budgets in law enforcement, and the development of specialised environmental units, in member states.
Separate to the Naval Service, Ireland’s Customs Service has a Maritime Unit, based in Cork, while gardaí have an Environmental and Waste Crime Investigation Unit within the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation.