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WEST AFRICA: Helping Pirates to Plunder the Oceans

Hilaire Avril

PARIS, Nov 11 2009 (IPS) - West Africa is one of the world’s regions most affected by pirate fishers. Illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing has been devastating local livelihoods and ecosystems for decades. National fisheries management authorities are often helpless to protect their maritime resources.

European Union (EU) enforcement mechanisms aimed at preventing the sale of “stolen” fish on the largest market in the world have so far been unable to stem the influx. And on the rare occasions when pirate fishers are caught, the real beneficiaries of this illicit trade are easily shielded from prosecution.

This is in large part due to the use of flags of convenience, according to a new report from Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), primarily researched in West African coastal countries. The London-based EJF does advocacy work that makes the link between environmental abuses and human rights.

Ships flying flags of convenience are using flags of countries other than the ship owners’ countries.

International law requires that all vessels, including fishing boats, fly a country’s flag.

States are accountable for the activities of vessels flying their flags. But “many of these countries lack the resources or the will to monitor and control vessels flying their flag, allowing pirate fishing operations to avoid fisheries regulations and controls,” says the EJF report.

Unable, and sometimes unwilling, to enforce fishing regulations, labour law or environmental guidelines, these countries do not effectively control the fleet flying their state flags. But West African countries that unknowingly host pirate fishers are equally unable to police their own resources.

“West Africa in general is extremely vulnerable to illegal fishing, as several countries are either in a post-conflict situation, or suffer from political instability. They have very limited capacity to patrol their waters,” says Duncan Copeland, who conducted the research.

These deficiencies are not lost on pirate fishers. Disregarding regulations – which either delimit acceptable fishing areas and natural reserves, specify maximum catch quotas and minimum hygiene to transport the fish, or impose labour standards for crews – can be highly profitable to the real owners of these fishing boats.

“Backed by shell companies, joint ventures and hidden owners, flags of convenience reduce the operating costs associated with legal fishing and make it extremely difficult to identify and penalise the real owners of vessels that fish illegally,” the report reads.

“You have companies that are foreign-owned but have African subsidiaries or joint-venture agreements, and they are increasingly Asian companies,” explains Copeland.

In 2005, the World Wildlife Fund commissioned a landmark study titled “The Changing Nature of High Seas Fishing: How Flags of Convenience provide cover for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing”.

Researched by fishing experts for a year, it claimed that “many, if not most, of these vessels deliberately register with flags-of-convenience countries to evade conservation and management regulations for high seas fisheries.

“The countries which issue flags of convenience are ultimately responsible for the activities of these vessels on the high seas but turn a blind eye and exercise little or no control over the vessels concerned.”

The study concluded that, according to Lloyd’s Register of Ships, more than 1,000 large-scale fishing vessels used flags of convenience, despite illegal fishing being “one of the most serious threats to the health of the world’s fisheries and oceans”.

The threat has not receded since. “Our report is largely based on research in West Africa in the past few years, investigating the extent of illegal fishing there and finding that many of the vessels were using flags of convenience to hide their identities, reduce their operating costs and avoid prosecution,” according to Copeland.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which monitors seafarers’ rights, has been waging a campaign against abusive labour practices on ships flying flags of convenience for more than 60 years. It lists 32 countries as delivering flags of convenience, four of which are in Africa.

According to ITF, these flags provide a means of avoiding labour regulation in the country of real ownership, and “become a vehicle for paying low wages and forcing long hours of work and unsafe working conditions”.

For well-hidden, anonymous ship owners, the financial incentives to skirt labour and environmental law remain substantial.

The EJF report argues that “globally, pirate fishing accounts for 10 to 23.5 billion dollars a year, representing between 11 and 26 million tons of fish. It is a highly profitable activity being driven by the enormous global demand for seafood, threatening the future of world fisheries.”

Despite their dubious reputation, obtaining a flag of convenience for one’s ship can be done with a few clicks on the internet. Numerous firms located in Panama, Equatorial Guinea or Liberia, for instance, will register the ship on their websites for a few hundred dollars a year.

The practice breaches the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which requires a genuine link between the real owner of a ship and its flag, according to the ITF.

Attesting to the sheer financial logic of open registries, some of the countries granting flags of convenience are themselves landlocked. Slovakia, Mongolia and Bolivia – all listed by the report as states deriving revenue from flags of convenience – have access to the sea.

But even for those states which do have shorelines, a paradox remains. “One of the things we found interesting was that there are several developing countries who, while being victims of illegal fishing themselves, also have open registries and give flags of convenience,” says Copeland.

“They’re seeing very little income from this, compared to the losses caused by illegal fishing,” he says, as “annual revenues are estimated at three to four million dollars from flagging fishing vessels, a tiny amount when compared to the millions of dollars lost by individual countries and the billions lost globally to such fishing.”

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