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

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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.

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