Foreign fishing boats exploit African flags to plunder the waters

According to a report by maritime intelligence organizations, foreign fishing operators are accessing and exploiting African flag records to allow their vessels to act with legal impunity.

Owners and operators exploit African flags to evade effective surveillance and to fish unsustainably and illegally in African sovereign waters and areas beyond national jurisdiction, according to the report by TMT and IR Consilium.

Maritime governance challenges and limited fisheries enforcement capacity across Africa, combined with the relative health of African fisheries, make the continent an ideal place for high-risk fishing operators to escape the responsibility. Weaknesses in African flag regimes further attract exploitation, say the authors. West Africa alone is estimated to lose $2.3 billion a year to illegal fishing, according to a study by Frontiers in Marine Science.

The report examines two high-risk reporting processes used by illegal operators –

1) “Flags of Convenience” – the use of African open registries to fish in waters beyond the national jurisdiction of African nations.
2) “Settlement” – the use and abuse of various local rules to register a foreign owned and operated vessel in an African national registry to fish in African waters.

Both of these processes make it easier for foreign fishing operators to fish illegally and unsustainably, which in turn undermines the sovereign rights of African coastal states. The report finds that the majority of African coastal states have fishing vessels flying their flag that have engaged in illegal fishing activities, as identified by illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUI) fishing lists or national news sources.

Protecting African Fisheries

Ensuring that fishing operations and high-risk vessels are excluded from national flags is an essential step in securing African waters for the legitimate and sustainable enrichment of coastal states, said Duncan Copeland, Executive Director of TMT.

“Every fishing vessel must have a flag, and each flag state must effectively manage these 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 measures any nation can take to reduce the risk of illegal fishing, unsustainable fishing practices and reputational damage.

The organizations promote an inter-agency approach to the allocation of flags to fishing vessels, ensuring that flagged vessels can be effectively managed, benefit from appropriate oversight and can be integrated into national fishing plans.

Due diligence should be exercised on all flagging applications, open vessel registries should be closed to fishing vessels, and deflagging and continued punishment of bad actors should all be considered, the authors say. While African states can exercise control over their own open vessel registries, only an international effort will help reduce the use of foreign open vessel registries to facilitate the conduct of IUU fishing operations in Africa and beyond, say -they.

“Beyond all the esoteric laws and weird nuances of maritime matters, the flag of fishing vessels is a fundamental matter of sovereignty. African states should have exclusive control over the resources of their own territory and full control over how foreign entities can use their name and reputation to interfere with the resources of other countries,” says Ian Ralby, CEO of ‘IR Consilium.