Skip to main content

Lowering Flags of Convenience for Fish Poachers

New international measures to end fish poaching on the high seas would enforce laws where the poacher calls, not where their ships are registered.

"Fish poaching" and "illegal fishing" may sound like misdemeanors, on the cosmic scale of crime, but they provide an astonishing mass of the fish people eat around the world. And they amount to a uniquely self-destructive problem that might one day solve itself by collapsing fish populations.

“China is the largest fisher in the world, and the illegal fishers would come second,” an EU fisheries commissioner, Joe Borg, memorably told the BBC in 2009. “We are speaking of a very, very big problem.”

This winter, a new proposal went before the U.S. Senate to help fight illegal fishing. The EU introduced “port state” measures against pirate fishermen at the start of 2010, and environmentalists have been waiting for the U.S. to follow suit. President Obama quietly submitted a treaty on port-state controls in November. (The treaty is formally known as the Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing.)

The term “port state” is fishing jargon, but the idea is so simple it seems amazing that no one has resorted to these measures until now. A ship flying a flag from Iran or Belize, let’s say, typically would be regulated by Iran or Belize. If the ship calls at a Spanish port with a load of illegally caught bluefin tuna, until recently, it would be a problem for Iran or Belize — not for Spanish authorities.

Belize in particular has a lax enforcement reputation. Belize is small, and presumably wouldn’t have much of a fleet, but Spanish boats — like commercial vessels around the world — sail under flags of convenience. Spanish fishing trawlers regularly register in Belize, where the government levies fewer taxes and allows captains to dodge certain rules.

So even if Europe and America have treaties to restrict their bluefin catch, until 2010 very little kept a hypothetical Spanish trawler from hoisting Belize colors, sailing to the Mid-Atlantic, and hauling tons of the hugely expensive and desperately threatened tuna back to EU markets.

But a bundle of EU regulations adopted in 2010 included port-state measures that gave European countries the power to punish known illegal fishing boats. Now, any European port can turn away a ship with any flag in the world, or even deny it fuel, if port authorities have evidence that the boat has fished illegally.

EUROPEAN DISPATCHMichael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

Michael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

“Most fishing vessels must, at some point, visit a port to land their catch, refuel and take on provisions, and [illegal] vessels are no exception,” writes Steve Trent, head of the Environmental Justice Foundation in Britain. “Regulating access to port facilities can therefore be a highly effective way of controlling [illegal] fishing.”

The main idea is to keep illegally caught fish off EU markets. But since factory ships can remain at sea for years, mixing legal with illegal fish and “laundering” it all by transferring it to separate freighters, denial of port services can solve a couple of problems. Even factory ships have to come in for fuel. And a ship suspected of trans-shipment can also be turned away — which deals with the ridiculously complex dilemma of fish laundering.

Port-state measures are a favorite cause of marine conservationists right now, and the treaty before the Senate is a step toward effective seafood regulation. The American market ranks with the EU and Japan as the world’s largest destinations for imported fish. The U.S. Congress is considering several other bills this season to curb illegal fishing (the Pirate Fishing Elimination Act, the Pirate Fishing Vessel Disposal Act and the International Fisheries Stewardship and Enforcement Act) , but the port-state agreement may be the most important.

“The oceans are not a ‘free-for-all,’” says Miguel A. Jorge, an expert on marine issues at WWF International. “This landmark agreement makes clear the responsibility of states to keep illegal fish from entering their ports.”

Sign up for the free e-newsletter.

"Like" Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add news to your site.