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Flags of convenience fly in face of fisheries protection


Food security and the future of fisheries are coming under increasing threat from large trawlers and factory ships flying flags of convenience (FOC), a UN conference on the Law of the Sea was told today.

Real and Present Danger: Flag State Failure and Maritime Security and Safety, a joint WWF and International Transport Workers’ Federation study, found ships under flags of convenience were also involved in piracy, people trafficking and arms smuggling.

“Many of the thousands of ships plying the world’s oceans are effectively without nationality, their owners operating under a veil of corporate secrecy and anonymity within a system that allows them to easily evade international laws and regulations,” said the report’s author, independent consultant Matthew Gianni.

“Under the FOC system, flag state sovereignty and control over ships is fast becoming a fiction of international law.”

The report cites the number of fishing vessels registered to states without fishing authorizations and the extent to which these vessels have been mentioned in connection with illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing.

Some 318 large-scale fishing vessels without apparent fishing rights are registered to Cambodia, Georgia, Mongolia, North Korea, Sierra Leone and Togo. Vessels from five of these six countries are currently “blacklisted” in various fisheries for illegal fishing activities.

For example, Spanish-based fishing company Vidal Armadores SA “has regularly used a variety of flags of convenience to facilitate IUU operations” the report says. The company, which was stated to have received European Union subsidies of €3 million, has been prominently involved in the illegal trade of the highly overfished Patagonian toothfish with three of its vessels registered to North Korea.

Fishing vessels used in illegal operations typically change name and flags many times to avoid being caught. In 2007 the Vidal Armadores’ vessel Ina Maka, previously named Black Moon, Red Moon, Elo, Thule, Magnus and Dorita and flagged at various times to Equatorial Guinea, St. Vincent & the Grenadines and North Korea, was fined 400,000 South African Rand ($US50,000) and its 60 kilometres of gillnets were confiscated after being caught illegally fishing off South Africa with a load of endangered nurse sharks on board.

The report notes that as FOC countries seldom exercise adequate control over the operation of ships registered to fly their flags, their ships also dominate records on sub-standard shipping, poor safety, maltreatment of crew and pollution of the marine environment.

IUU fishing costs an estimated US$1.2 billion each year and threatens the food supplies of millions in coastal areas of developing countries. In addition to the direct loss of the value of the catches to local fishermen, IUU fishers rarely comply with regulations and cause damage to fragile marine ecosystems and vulnerable species such as coral reefs, turtles and seabirds.

WWF is calling for the establishment of a UN Committee to negotiate a new implementing agreement to the UN Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – the legal framework governing the use of ocean space – that sets out enforceable measures to ensure flag states fulfil their responsibilities under UNCLOS and prevents states from operating vessel registers in breach of regulations and international agreements.

“Without transparency of ownership on the FOC registers and without flag states exercising effective jurisdiction over vessels flying their flag, FOC vessels will continue to plunder marine resources on the high seas with impunity,” said Miguel Jorge, acting Director of WWF’s Global Marine Programme.

The report was released as governments attended the ninth meeting of the United Nations Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea (UNICPOLOS) in New York.


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