Vessel flag loopholes leaving door open for IUU fishing in Africa

Published on
May 9, 2022
A foreign vessel flagged to an African country.

The number of fishing vessels exploiting African flags to escape effective oversight as they engage in illegal fishing continues to increase, a new report by TM-Tracking has found.

The report, published by Norwegian nonprofit TM-Tracking and a collection of experts under I.R. Consilium, found that the health of Africa’s fisheries, coupled with the limited enforcement capacity of the region's governments, make Africa an “ideal venue for high-risk fishing operators.” An analysis of fishing operations and illegal fishing cases by TM-Tracking found perpetrators of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing are tapping into the USD 194 billion (EUR 184 billion) global fishing market without any “meaningful restrictions or management oversight.”

The report identified two high-risk flagging processes being abused in the region: flags of convenience and “flagging-in.” Through flags of convenience, fishers use open registries in certain countries to fish beyond the national jurisdiction, and via flagging-in, foreign-owned and operated vessels exploit local rules to get onto domestic African registries and fish in African waters

“Both these processes afford high-risk foreign fishing operators the opportunity to more easily fish illegally and unsustainably, which in turn undermines the sovereign rights of coastal African States,” the report said.

The majority of African coastal states have flagged vessels that have then gone on to conduct illegal activities, according to IUU listings and domestic information sources.

“There is likely no continent that suffers more from the deleterious effects of IUU fishing – on food security, food sovereignty, marine environmental sustainability, and the rule of law – than Africa,” I.R. Consilium CEO Ian Ralby said. “African states should have exclusive control over the resources within their own territory, and full control over how foreign entities may use their name and reputation to interfere with the resources of other countries.”

Securing the waters of Africa for the legitimate and sustainable enrichment of coastal states requires governments on the continent to ensure high-risk fishing operations and vessels are excluded from national flags, the report said. It called for greater inter-agency cooperation when it comes to fishing vessel flagging decisions. That way, “vessels that are flagged can be effectively managed, receive proper oversight, and can be incorporated into national fisheries management plans.”

While African states can exert control over their own open vessel registries, the report notes “only an international effort will help to curtail the use of foreign open vessel registries to facilitate the conduct of IUU fishing operations in Africa and beyond.”

Other measures in eliminating high-risk vessels from flag-states include effective due diligence on all flagging applications, closing open vessel registries to fishing vessels, and strengthening oversight of private company involvement in vessel records – as many of the companies that manage open registries can make decisions without any, or with very limited, consultation with the flag-state, the report found.

Bad actors should be de-flagged to avoid reputational harm, and to show a commitment to the rule of law, the report further recommended. The de-flagging should be coupled with strengthening application and compliance requirements, establishing and enforcing flag-state penalties, and creating communication and cooperation channels with beneficial ownership states.

“International oversight from experts and operators from around the world is needed to tackle open vessel registry exploitation and continually identify and expose the new tactics being used to pursue impunity,” the report said.

For Africa to effectively safeguard its sovereignty and diminish the opportunities for IUU fishing in the continent and around the globe, control of African flags should be reclaimed and made less accessible to high-risk operators, TMT Executive Director Duncan Copeland said. 

“Every fishing vessel needs to have a flag, and every flag state needs to effectively manage those fishing vessels,” Copeland said. “Ensuring that high-risk fishing operators and vessels cannot enter a flag registry or fishing grounds is one of the simplest and cost-effective steps that any nation can take to reduce the risk of illegal fishing, unsustainable fishing practices, and reputational damage.”  

Photo courtesy of TM-Tracking

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