A report published today by international maritime intelligence organisations TMT and I.R. Consilium, examines both how foreign ﬁshing operators are accessing and exploiting African ﬂag registries for their ﬁshing vessels in pursuit of legal impunity, and how weaknesses in African ﬂagging regimes attract this exploitation.
The global fishing market is projected to be worth $194 billion by 2027, so there is ample ﬁnancial reward to be gained by ﬁshing illegally. High-risk ﬁshing vessel owners – those operations that are most likely to engage in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) ﬁshing, unsustainable and/or destructive ﬁshing practices, and/or those involving broader forms of associated crimes – are looking to create a situation where they can harness the resources of a State without any meaningful restrictions or management oversight.
Challenges with maritime governance and limited ﬁsheries enforcement capacity across the continent of Africa, combined with the relative health of African ﬁsheries, makes the continent an ideal venue for high-risk ﬁshing operators to test a variety of tactics for evading accountability. Recognizing this phenomenon is a critical ﬁrst step in discerning what can be done about it.
While concerns have been raised and discussed for many years about the ‘genuine link’ between the ﬂag state and the beneﬁcial owners and/or operators of vessels, broader ﬂag-related concerns continue to emerge around ﬁshing vessels that indicate a growing relationship between the ﬂag of the vessel and high-risk ﬁshing practices. These practises are particularly acute in Africa, where some ﬁshing vessel owners and operators exploit African ﬂags to escape eﬀective oversight and to ﬁsh unsustainably and illegally both in sovereign African waters and in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
The report examines two distinct high-risk ﬂagging processes: 1) ‘ﬂags of convenience’, the use of African open registries to ﬁsh in waters beyond the national jurisdiction of African nations, and 2) ‘ﬂagging-in’, the use and abuse of various local rules to ﬂag a foreign-owned and operated vessel into a domestic African registry to 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 identifies that the majority of African coastal States have flagged fishing vessels that have gone on to conduct illegal fishing activities, as identified through IUU listings or domestic information sources. Several case studies are provided that offer insight into how high-risk fishing operators are benefitting from their access to African flags.
As Africa turns to face ever increasing challenges in the maritime domain, ensuring that high-risk fishing operations and vessels are excluded from national flags is a critical step to securing the waters of Africa for the legitimate and sustainable enrichment of coastal States.
The good news is that for any State facing these challenges and that cares about its sovereignty and reputation, there are several ways to curtail opportunities for high-risk actors to appropriate and subsequently misuse its ﬂag, including:
- Ensuring an inter-agency approach is taken on all ﬁshing vessel ﬂagging decisions is crucial to ensuring that vessels that are ﬂagged can be eﬀectively managed, receive proper oversight, and can be incorporated into national ﬁsheries management plans.
- Ensuring that effective due diligence is carried out on all flagging applications.
- Closing open vessel registries to ﬁshing vessels.
- Strengthening oversight of private company involvement in open vessel registries as many of the private companies that manage open registries are entitled to make decisions without any or very limited consultation with the actual ﬂag state.
- De-ﬂagging bad actors to avoid reputational harm and to show a commitment to the rule of law. African ﬂag registries should de-ﬂag all vessels known to be associated with or engaged in IUU ﬁshing and refuse ﬂags to any such vessels that apply.
- Strengthening application and compliance requirements, particularly for open registries as a way of showing shared commitment to defending African sovereignty.
- Establishing and enforcing flag state penalties to avoid tarnishing the reputation of their State by the owners’ vessels engaging in illicit activity.
- Creating communication and cooperation channels with beneﬁcial ownership states to assist in determining the risk associated with a vessel during the decision on whether to ﬂag it or not, or in cases where enforcement actions are required.
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. While African States can exert control over their own open vessel registries, 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.
Duncan Copeland, Executive Director, TMT “Every fishing vessel needs to have a flag, and every flag State needs to effectively manage those fishing vessels. Ensuring that high-risk fishing operators and vessels cannot enter a flag registry or fishing grounds is one of the simplest and most cost-effective steps that any nation can take to reduce the risk of illegal fishing, unsustainable fishing practices, and reputational damage. Individual countries and the international community have the opportunity to close flagging loopholes that currently contribute to illegal and unsustainable fishing practices in Africa and globally.”
Dr. Ian Ralby, CEO, I.R. Consilium “Beyond all the esoteric law and odd nuances of maritime matters, the flagging of fishing vessels is a fundamental issue of sovereignty. 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. While this is a growing problem amid an already lengthy list of maritime governance challenges facing the African continent, it is a problem that can be solved with sufficient will and the consistent, determined implementation of good practices. 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. Reclaiming control of African flags and making them less accessible to high-risk operators, therefore, will simultaneously help safeguard African sovereignty and diminish the opportunities for IUU fishing in Africa and around the globe.”