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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.

The Problem

  • 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- pound fish).
  • 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 food security.

The Causes

  • 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 Ocean).
    • 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.

The Context

  • 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.

Further Reading - a website which provides help in obtaining a flag of convenience

Papers and Report of the FAO Technical Consultation on Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported Fishing

Report of the 1999 meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas