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African flag registries exploited by high-risk fishing operators: Report

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

A report published by international maritime intelligence organisations TMT and IR Consilium, examines both how foreign fishing operators are accessing and exploiting African flag registries for their fishing vessels in pursuit of legal impunity, and how weaknesses in African flagging regimes attract this exploitation.

The global fishing market is projected to be worth US$194bn by 2027, so there is ample financial reward to be gained by fishing illegally. High-risk fishing vessel owners are looking to create a situation where they can harness the resources of a state without any meaningful restrictions or management oversight.

Challenges with maritime governance and limited fisheries enforcement capacity across the continent of Africa, combined with the relative health of African fisheries, makes the continent an ideal venue for high-risk fishing operators to test a variety of tactics for evading accountability. Recognising this phenomenon is a critical first step in discerning what can be done about it.

While concerns have been raised and discussed for many years about the ‘genuine link’ between the flag state and the beneficial owners and/or operators of vessels, broader flag-related concerns continue to emerge around fishing vessels that indicate a growing relationship between the flag of the vessel and high-risk fishing practices. These practises are particularly acute in Africa, where some fishing vessel owners and operators exploit African flags to escape effective oversight and to fish unsustainably and illegally both in sovereign African waters and in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

The report examines two distinct high-risk flagging processes: 

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 high-risk 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 identifies that the majority of African coastal states have flagged fishing vessels that have gone on to conduct illegal fishing activities, as identified through IUU listings or domestic information sources. Several case studies are provided that offer insight into how high-risk fishing operators are benefitting from their access to African flags.

As Africa turns to face ever increasing challenges in the maritime domain, 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.

The good news is that for any state facing these challenges and that cares about its sovereignty and reputation, there are several ways to curtail opportunities for high-risk actors to appropriate and subsequently misuse its flag, including:

Ensuring an inter-agency approach is taken on all fishing vessel flagging decisions is crucial to ensuring that vessels that are flagged can be effectively managed.

Closing open vessel registries to fishing vessels.

Strengthening oversight of private company involvement in open vessel registries.

De-flagging bad actors to avoid reputational harm and to show a commitment to the rule of law. 

Strengthening application and compliance requirements, particularly for open registries as a way of showing shared commitment to defending African sovereignty.

Establishing and enforcing flag state penalties to avoid tarnishing the reputation of their state by the owners’ vessels engaging in illicit activity.

International oversight from experts and operators from around the world is needed to tackle open vessel registry exploitation and continually identify and expose the new tactics being used to pursue impunity.

Duncan Copeland, executive director, TMT said, “Every fishing vessel needs to have a flag, and every flag state needs to effectively manage those fishing vessels.”

Dr Ian Ralby, CEO, IR Consilium, added, “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.”