Flags of (in)convenience: how illegal fishing vessels avoid the law

 By Samantha Farquhar

Photo Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing has direct ties to human trafficking, drug smuggling, slavery, and even gang activity. Oh, and of course it directly affects the economic and food security of billions. For example, West Africa, a region where more than 50% get the majority of their protein intake from fisheries and over 3 million are directly employed in the industry, loses 2.3 billion dollars annually to illegal fishing. Foreign IUU fishing is even an issue in the Pacific Northwest. In 2013, it was estimated that Alaskan crabbers lost over 560  million to IUU fishing to Russia.

How is it we can send a person to the moon, but we can’t stop these vessels from breaking the law? Many of these vessels operate in one country’s waters, are owned by a second, and are registered to a third. This dynamic describes vessels using ‘flags of convenience’ (FOC).  For example, consider the Yongding, a vessel long suspected of illegally catching Patagonian toothfish since 2001 but which was not actually detained until 2016 in Cape Verde. The reason? It had been registered under 9 different flags and 11 different names, making it impossible to keep tabs on. Other examples of IUU vessels utilizing FOC include the Chang Bai, Aldabra, Snake, Iskander,….the list goes on.

Vessels operate under the laws of the country whose flag they fly, so by registering a vessel in a particular country, operators can ‘conveniently’ adapt to the nationality and, consequently, laws of that country. FOC registration offers an easy and important source of income for countries, but it can also be done online and without the need of any previous vessel history– even by landlocked countries such as Mongolia. Some argue that FOC are a direct violation of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which states a country much have a ‘genuine link’ between the owner of the vessel and flag that it flies. However, the UN is not an enforcement agency; therefore, it is up to the individual countries to uphold this agreement. Yet, the International Transport Workers’ Federation identifies 35 countries that grant FOC.

Recently, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has implemented the Port State Measures (PSM) for fishing and fishing associated vessels. This is the first international treaty regarding IUU fishing as it allows participating countries to deny IUU vessels access to their port and connect more efficiently with enforcement authorities. The PSM has proven successful, as many vessels that have tried offloading illegal catch have been seized; however, there are gaps. There are many instances where the boats have escaped port authority such as the Shyang Yih 668, Sheng Ji Qun 3, or the Yutuna No. 1. It is likely these vessels’ owners have reflagged and renamed, or even sunk their vessels in order to avoid prosecution. In the case of sinking, it was recently found that IUU vessels are covered by insurance and can file for compensation– as such the case with the notorious fishing vessel, the Thunder. Vessels that are formally charged will usually be seized for a short time along with their catch and then fined. While foreign IUU fishing is estimated to be a 10-23.5 billion dollar industry, a fine is not much of a deterrent as most IUU fishing vessels are repeat offenders.

While FOC are complicating the fight against IUU fishing, things are changing. New methods like AIS tracking, and DNA analyses are emerging along with new global initiatives like INTERPOL’s Project Scale or Pew Charitable Trust’s Ending Illegal Fishing Project. On the national level, individual countries are declaring zero tolerance towards IUU fishing. Indonesia, for example, has taken an aggressive approach to discouraging IUU fishing–by blowing up all the IUU fishing vessels it seizes.

Ultimately, IUU fishing is a response to meet the world’s high demand for seafood. Thus, as a consumer, you have a lot of power. Make a difference by making informed purchases. Look for trusted eco-labels, like MSC, that verify your fish was caught transparently or know what species is best to buy. While the irregularity of FOC will continue to be taken advantage of by IUU vessels, these consumer choices along with ongoing initiatives can make a difference until new policies are put in place.