Foreign fishing boats exploit African flags to plunder waters

Ensuring that high-risk fishing operations and vessels are not allowed to sail under African national flags is a critical step to securing African waters against foreign exploitation, says a new report.


Image : Анна Костенко / Adobe Stock

Foreign fishing operators are accessing and exploiting African flag registries in order to allow their vessels to act with legal impunity, according to a report by maritime intelligence organisations.

The owners and operators exploit African flags to escape effective oversight and to fish unsustainably and illegally in sovereign African waters and in areas beyond national jurisdiction, says the report from TMT and I.R. Consilium.

Challenges with maritime governance and limited fisheries enforcement capacity across Africa, combined with the relative health of African fisheries, makes the continent an ideal venue for high-risk fishing operators to evade accountability. Weaknesses in African flagging regimes further attract exploitation, the authors say. West Africa alone is estimated to lose $2.3bn annually to illegal fishing, according to a study by Frontiers in Marine Science.

The report examines two high-risk flagging 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) “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 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 finds that the majority of African coastal states have flagged fishing vessels that have gone on to conduct illegal fishing activities, as identified through illegal, unreported and unregulated (IIU) fishing listings or domestic information sources.

Protecting Africa’s fisheries

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, says Duncan Copeland, executive director at 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 cost-effective steps that any nation can take to reduce the risk of illegal fishing, unsustainable fishing practices, and reputational damage.” 

The organisations encourage an inter-agency approach towards fishing vessel flagging, ensuring that vessels that are flagged can be effectively managed, receive proper oversight, and can be incorporated into national fisheries plans.

Due diligence should be carried out on all flagging applications, open vessel registries should be closed to fishing vessels, and de-flagging and further punishing bad actors should all be considered, the authors say. 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, they say. 

“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,” says Ian Ralby, CEO of I.R. Consilium.

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