Fishing Under Flags of Convenience
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) has classified 75% of the world's fish stocks as fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted and therefore in need of urgent conservation and management measures. The considerable excess in the capacity of the world's fishing fleets is an important cause of this situation. In an attempt to improve the status of fish stocks, some governments have been imposing stricter limits on the activities of fishing fleets both in waters under their jurisdiction and, by using international management organizations, for certain areas of the high seas.
- One way in which some fishing interests seek to avoid these stricter controls is by the use of what
are known as "flags of convenience" (FOCs). Under international law, the country whose flag a
vessel flies is responsible for controlling the activities of that vessel to ensure that it abides by the
relevant rules, such as fishing regulations, safety and labour standards, and many others. The
so-called "FOC countries" allow fishing boats to fly their flag - for a fee - and then ignore any
violations of international fisheries laws committed by them. These "pirate" vessels can then fish as
if the rules set by their own countries and by international law don't apply. Honduras, Panama,
Belize and St. Vincent & the Grenadines have been the worst offenders of the FOC countries.
- While information is obviously limited, it is known that FOC fleets have been particularly active in
fisheries for commercially valuable species such as tuna (notably bluefin and bigeye) and
Patagonian toothfish. These species command high prices in the Japanese market: top sashimi-
quality tuna has reached more than US $110 per pound, with some of the largest, high-quality
individual tuna fetching up to US $50 000 (though a record US $172 000 was once paid for a 440-
- Estimation of the size and impact of the FOC fleets is difficult as they are very fluid, changing
names and flags easily and frequently, moving undetected from fishery to fishery and using a
series of "shell" companies to conceal the identity of their owners. In 1999, one regional fisheries
organization, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT)
estimated that there were at least 345 FOC vessels fishing for tuna encompassing 16 different
flags of convenience. Another estimate, compiled using data from Lloyd's Maritime Information
Service, listed over 1300 fishing vessels greater than 24 metres in length flying flags of
convenience. This does not include the large network of refrigerated cargo vessels (reefers) and
fuel tankers which support the FOC fishing fleets at sea and allow them to avoid port control
measures implemented by some countries.
- Pirate vessels, while contributing to the problems of global overfishing, also poach fish in the waters
of developing coastal countries (for example, off the coasts of Africa) that lack the means to patrol
their offshore waters; this can result in detrimental impacts on local fish stocks, employment and
- Responsibility for problems associated with flags of convenience extend far beyond the FOC
countries and includes:
- Those countries that fail to restrict the fishing companies registered within their jurisdiction from
owning and operating FOC fishing vessels. Most notorious in this regard are Taiwan, Korea,
Japan and the European Union.
- Those countries which do not conduct rigorous inspections of FOC vessels when landing their
catch or resupplying. Ports often frequented by FOC vessels currently include, for example,
Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands, Spain (Atlantic Ocean) and Port Louis in Mauritius (Indian
- Those countries which are the ultimate destination of fish caught by the pirate fleets. Japan, the
European Union, the United States and other developed counties are the primary consumers
of illegally-caught fish.
- Conservation organizations assert that effective enforcement of import bans, port restrictions, and
other measures requires a monitoring program. Such a program would allow fish which has been
caught according to the relevant regulations to be identified and traced; all other fish would be
assumed as been caught illegally. While some fisheries organizations deploy a few observers to
collect scientific data, very few place observers on every vessel in order to ensure compliance with
regulations, though this is considered the only way to prevent fraud in the high value fisheries
which attract FOC fleets.
- ICCAT has used sightings of vessels fishing in the Atlantic under flags of convenience and data on
imports to institute trade-related measures in an attempt to curtail pirate fishing. The Contracting
Parties (including Japan, the European Union, the United States and many others) have agreed to
ban the importation of certain species (bluefin, bigeye or swordfish, depending on the country) from
Belize, Honduras, Equatorial Guinea, Cambodia and Saint Vincent & the Grenadines. This
measure, however, is somewhat limited as companies can simply reflag to a country not subjected
to an import ban.
- There is general agreement that to effectively address pirate fishing, countries must deny FOC
fishing vessels and their supporting cargo vessels and tankers access to harbors and port facilities. South Africa, in the context of ICCAT, has taken a step in this direction by announcing that it will
prohibit any fishing ship that does not fly the flag of an ICCAT member country, or that is on the
ICCAT blacklist, from offloading in its ports. Previously, Cape Town was a preferred destination
for the pirate tuna fleets.
- Two international initiatives have been launched in recent years by the FAO. A plan of action for
the management of fishing capacity in 1999 was followed by a second plan to combat illegal,
unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. In both cases, many conservation organizations felt that
the initially strong texts were significantly weakened by governments in the final negotiating stages. Nonetheless, the plans are voluntary, so their impact will depend on the political will of countries to implement their provisions.
- The FAO Plan of Action on IUU Fishing is an attempt to implement a global approach to address
the problems surrounding flags of convenience, among other fisheries issues. This is predicated
on the understanding that any resolution must involve targetting not only FOC vessels but also
the ports they land in, the markets they supply, and the countries where the owners are based. A
further important component can be incorporated by the private sector: Importing companies must
refuse to purchase fish from any FOC fishing and transport vessel.
http://www.flagsofconvenience.com - a website which provides help in obtaining a flag of
Papers and Report of the FAO Technical Consultation on Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported
Report of the 1999 meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas