Pirates use 'flag-hopping' to plunder world's fish stocks

A A A

The world's fish stocks are being plundered by pirates using "flags of convenience" to mask their illicit activities, according to a report.

Fishing vessels using those flags - which are often purchased online for a few hundred pounds - are responsible for illegal fishing worth £700m a year, the report released yesterday concludes. They are also accused of endangering the marine environment and abusing their crews.

The report - commissioned by the conservation charity WWF, the Australian government and the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) - found that 15 per cent of the world's large-scale fishing fleet, or a total of 2,800 vessels, flew a flag of convenience or of unknown origin.

The European Union and Taiwan have the largest number of companies operating such vessels, with Spain said to be one of the worst offenders. Forty-six of the boats that fish illegally or unofficially are based in Spain, with 18 in Cyprus and eight in Britain.

Topping the list of countries offering flags of convenience are Panama, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Honduras and Belize, which together account for more than three-quarters of the black market fleet.

Two nations in the top 14 - Mongolia and Bolivia - are landlocked, while Liberia's flag register is run by a private company in the US.

"Flag-hopping" is a growing phenomenon, with owners shopping around to register their vessels with increasingly lax jurisdictions. They are "laundering" their catch by transferring it to legitimate ships at sea.

The pirates generally fish for commercially valuable species, such as bluefin tuna or Patagonian toothfish, which command high prices in Japan. They also poach in the waters of developing countries that are unable to patrol their fisheries.

Some species are being driven to extinction by illegal operators, who flout international law aimed at preserving fish stocks by limiting catches, the report says. In addition, they have a cavalier attitude towards "bycatch" - the incidental capture of, for instance, sharks, turtles and albatross.

The report documents the abuse of crews, who are often paid poverty wages or work as forced labour and are kept virtual prisoners at sea. Those deemed to be "inefficient" or trouble-makers are abandoned in foreign ports.

In one recent incident, a11 crew members, mainly Chinese, died in a suspicious fire aboard a Ukrainian-flagged ship, Simiez, in Montevideo, Uruguay. Port authorities believed that nine of the men were locked in their cabins at the time.

The report says that while the countries issuing flags of convenience are ultimately responsible for the activities of those vessels, in practice they "turn a blind eye and exercise little or no control".

The flag of convenience system, the report says, "allows an exceptionally large fleet of high seas fishing vessels to roam the world's oceans in search of high-value species of fish and operate completely outside the rule of international law".

A chase to catch illegal fishermen that lasted thousands of miles

Illegal fishing resulted in a marathon pursuit across the Southern Ocean when the Uruguayan-flagged Viarsa 1, suspected of illegally fishing Patagonian toothfish, was pursued by Australian, South African, and British vessels.

In August 2003, Viarsa 1 was spotted with its nets lowered in Australian Antarctic waters, allegedly poaching toothfish within the Australian economic exclusion zone.

Pirate fishing of toothfish, often by vessels using flags of convenience, has risen sharply, with much of it destined for Japan, Europe and the US.

And so when the Australian patrol boat, the Southern Supporter, caught wind of Viarsa 1's allegedly illegally fishing, it chased after the longliner, which repeatedly ignored calls to allow inspectors on board. The chase lasted thousands of miles through southern seas. Reinforcements were called in. The South African trawler SA Agulhas, which had a helicopter on board, joined the pursuit, as did British ships. Halfway through the chase, the US announced that it would freeze its toothfish market.

For 20 days, the pursuers raced through rough waters and loose pack ice before the vessel surrendered some 2,000 nautical miles west of South Africa.

When Viarsa 1 was finally cornered, it was returned to Australia. The chase cost Australia around £2m, but its fisheries minister Ian Macdonald heralded the capture a success, saying it would focus attention on the need to fight illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.

At risk from overfishing

BLUEFIN TUNA: Considered a delicacy in many countries, particularly Japan, it is critically endangered. Worldwide stocks are severely depleted and thought to be as little as 4 per cent of what they were in the 1960s.

SWORDFISH: Due to intensive fishing, the average swordfish has fallen in weight by about a third since 1960. Northern Atlantic stocks have almost recovered from the 1990s crisis, but fears remain about southern and Pacific stocks.

PATAGONIAN TOOTHFISH: In the mid-1990s, this fish –or Chilean Sea Bass as it was then renamed – was considered the must-have seafood in luxury restaurants and, as demand increased, the number of toothfish inevitably fell. The seriously threatened species has a low reproductive rate which makes it particularly vulnerable to illegal overfishing.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Extras
indybest
Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Services Manager - (communications, testing, DM)

£32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Services Manage...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Apprenticeships

£10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an outstanding opportunity for 1...

Ashdown Group: IT Analyst / Helpdesk - 2 Month Contract - £15ph - High Wycombe

£15 per hour: Ashdown Group: IT Analyst / Helpdesk - 2 Month Contract - £15ph ...

Recruitment Genius: Automation Test Analyst

£35000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This group is the world's secon...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum