Inconvenient flags

One key problem is how to stop displaced national fishing vessels from searching for fishing opportunities on the high seas and even re-flagging to jurisdictions that do not provide proper surveillance of fleet activities.

Indeed, the number of vessels fishing under flags of convenience (FOC), many of which are of OECD origin, has risen in the past decade.

Although FOCs make up only 6% of the world’s fishing fleet, the fact that they can avoid fisheries management measures means they have lower costs and so have an unfair price advantage over fishers that follow the rules and observe good conservation practices. They may not catch a lot of fish but the fish they catch are of high economic value, like tuna, swordfish and Patagonian toothfish. The direct problem is one of not adhering to international rules, insofar as they exist, but indirectly these fish could have been caught within national waters through which they often migrate.

Most illegal fishing takes place on the high seas where the governance structure is weak and where fishing is a free-for-all enterprise, unless a regional fisheries management organisation has been set up to deal with the issues. However, FOCs make it extremely difficult for regional fisheries management organisations to control the resources under their jurisdiction. FOC fishing activities undermine the work of the likes of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna and the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, that were set up to protect particular hot spots.

Sterner international action and commitment is needed to rein in FOC activities and Johannesburg provides both nations that are retiring fishing vessels and the countries that provide the flags of convenience a chance to sort matters out. The FAO International Plan of Action for Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported Fishing provides the framework for doing so. But where there’s a market, there’s a trade. So, in addition to firm diplomatic pressure, countries may need to impose measures to stop the illegal circulation of fish. Import restrictions for use specifically against vessels and countries that disregard international rules and standards, plus certification schemes and labelling are all areas that should be explored and used. Such controls would benefit not only fishing resources, but markets too.

©OECD Observer No. 233, August 2002

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