How EU-registered vessels use flags of convenience to mask illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing practices in West Africa

An industrial fishing vessel flying the flag of Cameroon. Illustration by Multimedia Solutions, 2023, used with permission.

This story was originally published by iWatch Africa, and a shorter version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing partnership agreement.

An investigation led by Gideon Sarpong in partnership with the Pulitzer Center’s Ocean Reporting Network sheds light on how European Union (EU) registered vessels utilize flags of convenience to mask their Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing practices in West Africa.

According to the research report, the Pilot Whale vessel, also known as Mikhail Verbitskiy, is among the many vessels involved in IUU activities, cleverly exploiting the concept of a “flag of convenience.” Despite displaying the Cameroon flag, this vessel is, in fact, owned and operated by European-based companies.

In 2020, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), an international organization dedicated to monitoring economic and environmental abuses, identified Cameroon's flag as a “flag of convenience” in a study. This term, widely used in the maritime industry, refers to a situation where a ship is registered in a country different from its actual ownership. During the investigation, marine experts confirmed that the “flag of convenience” is exploited by unscrupulous operators to evade accountability for illegal fishing, human rights violations, and other crimes.

The study by EJF also revealed that about 55 percent of the vessels in Cameroon's fleet had been added within the past five years. This indicates a significant increase in the number of vessels in a relatively short period of time. The newly added vessels make up 90 per cent of the fleet's total tonnage, with 94 per cent of the newly added vessels belonging to foreign entities. In addition, the findings also revealed that nearly all of the newly added vessels operate outside of Cameroon's waters.

Lack of sustainable fishing practices and accountability

The EU currently operates several Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreements (SFPAs) or bilateral fishing agreement that allows EU vessels to fish in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of third countries. It currently holds 11 active agreements with countries across Africa, including Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau. In exchange for access to fish in the EEZ of these countries, the EU makes a financial contribution to these countries.

All European vessels, whether operating under SFPAs or private agreements, are subject to the stringent regulations outlined in the SMEFF (Sustainable Management of External Fishing Fleets) framework, which mandates sustainable fishing practices.

However, the situation takes a curious turn when it comes to Cameroon-flagged trawlers. These vessels can potentially exceed the EU-imposed limits without being required to offload their catches in Mauritania or Guinea-Bissau.

report by IUU Watch revealed a concerning trend among vessel owners who opt for flags of convenience. Such choices appear to prioritize gaining access to a multitude of countries’ EEZs with little regard for sustainable fishing practices and accountability.

The report stated,

In the case of EU vessels, abusive reflagging may occur to circumvent the exclusivity clause set out in official EU access agreements with non-EU countries (SFPAs). According to this exclusivity clause, EU flagged fishing vessels are not permitted to operate in the waters of the non-EU country in which an SFPA is in force unless they hold a fishing authorisation which has been issued in accordance with that agreement.

“This practice undermines the very essence of the SMEFF regulations, endangering marine ecosystems and the livelihoods of local communities,” said an EU official speaking on condition of anonymity.

‘Red card’ and the EC’s ‘hypocritical’ response

In January 2023, because of the alarming state of affairs in Cameroon, the European Commission (EC) issued a “red card” and imposed import restrictions. This punitive action was primarily rooted in the assertion of “weak flag state control,” a factor contributing to widespread illegal fishing practices on the international stage.

In the issuance of the red card, the European Commission declared, “Member States shall reject the importation of fishery products from Cameroon, even when accompanied by catch certificates,” thereby implementing a ban on fish imports from the country. This measure came into immediate effect after the issuance of the red card.

Gideon Sarpong's investigation uncovered 12 vessels owned, managed, or associated with companies tied to the European Union, all of which continue to fly the flag of Cameroon.

EU-registered fishing vessels flying the flag of Cameroon. Graphic by Daniel Abugre Anyorigya, 2023, used with permission.

What’s even more striking is that an analysis of trade data from the European Market Observatory for fisheries and aquaculture (EUMOFA) revealed that nearly EUR 10 million (USD 10.94 million) worth of fish had entered the EU from Cameroon between January 2023 and September 2023, despite the ban imposed by the European Commission. This data was scrutinized and contested by the EC, which admitted that fishery products from Cameroon entered the union in 2023, albeit in very small quantities. However, when the investigators requested for the data to substantiate their claim, an official from the EC failed to provide it.

Export of fishery products from Cameroon to the EU, Jan-September, 2023. Design by Daniel Abugre Anyorigya.

The basis of the EC's argument rested on asserting that these imports were beyond the purview of their “catch certification scheme,” using instances like “oysters and ornamental fish” as examples, contending that these were predominantly brought in by France and Belgium.

An official of the EU IUU Fishing Coalition stressed that these fishing vessels are able to take advantage of what the EC perceives as Cameroon’s lax fisheries controls, while financial proceeds remain within the EU.

However, the EC has yet to take any substantive actions against these companies and the continuous flow of fish from Cameroon into the EU market.

Beatrice Gorez, the coordinator for the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements, a consortium of organizations committed to shedding light on the impacts of EU-African fisheries agreements, poignantly asks, “Should the European Union not also seek to target these European-based companies or individuals who own these vessels?”

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