In the very year the International Maritime Organization (IMO) designated “Year of the Seafarer”, a new report, published by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), has now exposed how illegal, ‘pirate’ fishing operators are ruthlessly exploiting not only the riches of the sea, but also the crews aboard the fishing vessels.
Pirate fishing – less prosaically known as illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing – is one of the most serious threats to the future of world fishery. Occurring in virtually all fishing grounds from shallow coastal waters to deep oceans, and driven by an enormous global demand for fish and seafood, pirate fishing is leaving coastal communities in developing countries without much needed food and income and the marine environment debilitated and empty.
IUU fishing is an organized criminal activity, professionally coordinated and truly global, respecting neither national boundaries nor international attempts to manage the seas’ resources. It thrives where governance is weak and where countries fail to meet their international responsibilities. According to the EJF and Greenpeace, it is thus not surprising that most illegal fishing is carried out by ships flying so-called ‘flags of convenience’.
Under international law governing the high seas, the law of the country in which a vessel is registered applies. Some countries, however (e.g. Panama), allow vessels of other nationalities to register with them for a few hundred dollars and are known to ignore offenses. So if a country either hasn’t signed up to fishing agreements or doesn’t enforce them, vessels flagged to that country are able to freely plunder the oceans, and even other nations’ waters, at will.
In addition, pirate vessels often re-flag several times a season and frequently change their name. Backed by hidden owners, flags of convenience thus severely impede efforts to combat pirate fishing and make it almost impossible to locate and penalize the real owners of the fishing vessels.
Global pirate fishing does not, however, merely threaten the well-being of fish. Men in poor nations who are illiterate and desperate for money to support their families are specifically recruited to work on the fishing ships with the promise of good pay. Others are simply sold by dodgy brokers to unscrupulous boat captains. Once at sea, the men discover that the vessels are not up to scratch. Sanitary conditions are horrendous, sleeping quarters regularly nothing more than cardboard mattresses and food is scarce and rancid. In addition, the men are often not paid, are habitually confined on board for months or years, are physically abused, and in some cases even murdered or simply left to die. They are modern-day slaves – kept in floating prisons.
Unfortunately for these men, the international legal instruments needed to address the human rights abuses aboard illegal fishing vessels do not exist, are only voluntary, or have not yet been ratified by the international community. As a first step to amend this unacceptable situation, the loopholes in international law allowing illegal fishing vessels to fly flags of convenience should be closed immediately. Hiding behind flags of convenience allows pirate fishing operators to cloak their identities and avoid fisheries and labor laws. This directly contributes to the devastation of fish stocks and the abuse of crews.
Furthermore, existing ILO and IMO Conventions on crew treatment, training, and vessel safety must be ratified and implemented by all coastal states. And, last but by no means least, the murderers and crooks currently profiting from pirate fishing need to be hunted down and brought to justice. We must not allow the high seas of this world to turn into an unlegislated area where criminals can make up their own rules.