El Universo: “What are Flags of Convenience?”

What are flags of convenience? Tactic used by fleets of boats to evade fishing controls


August 25, 2020 – 12:40 PM

A boat flying a flag of convenience means that the owner has registered the boat in a country other than their own.

The ship flies the banner or flag of that country, known as the flag state, and operates according to its laws, generally more lax than those of the owner.

For a shipowner, the advantage of this arrangement includes comparatively fewer regulations, lower employment requirements, and therefore cheaper labor, cheaper registration fees, and lower or no taxes, says an article published by the English newspaper, The Guardian.

For crew members, the disadvantages tend toward lower labor standards, fewer rights, and little protection. The International Federation of Transport Workers opposes them.

Many of these ships spend long periods at sea where “appalling” human rights violations have been reported. There is even talk of slavery, prostitution and trafficking.

Panama, which has the largest ship registry in the world, followed by Liberia, operates an “open registry”, which allows foreign owners to register ships under its flag. It guarantees anonymity to owners, making it difficult for them to be held accountable.

Within the fleet that fishes near Ecuador, the Ecuadorian Armed Forces have detected vessels with the Panamanian and Liberian flags.

This practice began in the 1920s in the United States, when cruise ship owners registered their vessels in Panama so that they could serve alcohol to their passengers during Prohibition.

“On the surface, it looks like a very fragmented fleet, but we suspect that the core is probably in the hands of a few companies,” Miren Gutiérrez, lead author of a report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), told The Guardian.

Recent research shows that the Chinese government heavily subsidizes fishing through tax breaks, mainly on fuel, worth $ 16.6 billion per year, or 47% of total global fisheries subsidies.

“Most of this overfishing is not illegal, that’s the problem,” says Gutiérrez, since most of it occurs in international waters.

“Most of the ships in the fleet are trawlers, banned in China’s territorial waters and known to damage ecosystems by dragging nets across the seabed. Other common boats are longliners, for larger fish such as tuna or shark, and squid jiggers, which tend to operate in deeper waters ”, says the English newspaper.

“To change the dynamics there needs to be radical transparency,” says Philip Chou, a distant-water fisheries expert at Oceana, a marine conservation group. “So far, the evidence has not shown that (the Chinese government) has gone beyond mere rhetoric.”

China would have to open up about its catch, the real-time location of its fleets, ownership of fishing boats and regarding the opaque bilateral or regional deals it has made with low-income coastal nations, Chou says.

China’s self-declared shakeup proposes changes to the rules of transshipment on the high seas – the movement of cargo from one ship to another – along with reforms to distant-water fishing.

It also announced two three-month fishing moratoriums: one west of the Galapagos, between September and November, and another starting in July in the South Atlantic near Argentina.

However, these moratoriums have been questioned by experts, the military and environmentalists, especially Ecuadorians. They indicate that usually in those months the Chinese fleet does not fish in the vicinity of Ecuador and Argentina due to the reproduction cycle of species such as the giant squid.

China also aims to ratify the Port State Measures Agreement, the first binding international agreement in which ports around the world agree to now allow illegal or unregulated fishing vessels to land catches.

“It’s an important award,” says Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation. “But in the context of world fisheries, it is not enough, it is not enough,” he adds.

China racked up about 15% of the world’s reported fish catches in 2018, according to the UN fisheries agency, more than double that of second- and third-ranked countries. But the lack of transparency means that it is impossible to really know how much shellfish humans are getting from the ocean amid an alarming drop in marine life in the past half century.

Ecuador is one of the few small nation states that have rejected the Chinese flotillas, indicates The Guardian. In the highly contested South China Sea, Indonesia sent F-16 fighter jets along with the navy, coast guards and fishing boats to repel 63 Chinese fishing boats and four coast guard boats from its waters in January.

But North Korean fishing boats may have fared worse in exchanges with China’s “dark fleets” amid reports of “ghost ships” turning up off Japanese shores with the bodies of North Korean fishermen.

Additionally, the Chinese fleet has a fearsome reputation for systemic illegal fishing and aggressive tactics when facing competitors or foreign patrols.

China signed a key UN agreement on fish stocks in 1996, but never ratified it. It is a member of seven regional fisheries management organizations, or RFMOs, but its distant water fleet operates outside of those frameworks, says Mercedes Rosello, director of House of Ocean, a nonprofit legal consultancy that monitors illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Read the entire article at El Universo at bit.ly/0825flags or https://www.eluniverso.com/noticias/2020/08/25/nota/7954522/banderas-conveniencia-flota-china-pesca-galapagos-ecuador

Informing and sharing news on marine life, flora, fauna and conservation in the Galápagos Islands since 2017
© SOS Galápagos, 2021

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