A fishy identity crisis

Feature story - 14 March, 2006
So you own five illegal trawlers called the Oyra, Ostroe, Okhotino, Olchan and Ostrovets. Things aren't looking good for you when in 2005, your boats are involved in the collapse of the fish stocks of the North Atlantic. Sounds like you need a change of identity.

Activists in Rostock Harbour chain four pirate fishing boats together, handing over the keys to the German authorities.

You rename your fleet like aSpanish chorus line: Eva, Junita, Rosita, Isabella and Carmen. Then forgood measure you change their nationality from Dominica (a tiny islandin the Caribbean) to Georgia (former Soviet state on the Black Sea).

You've changed your boats "flag of convenience" three times in the last five years, in 2002changing your flag from Russia to Cyprus, deciding in 2004 you prefer the colours ofDominica.

Now you fly the flag of choice for pirate fishing vessels -Georgia. And of course, when your boats aren't plundering the highseas, destroying deep sea life and stealing fish from some of thepoorest countries in the world, they're docked in Rostock harbour,Germany.

Being blacklisted for repeatedly engaging in pirate fishing in the North Atlantic means thatEuropean ports cannot supply your ships with fuel, provisions or anyother services, you cannot sell your fish and cannot charter yourboats. Which is strange because you are currently docked in a Germanharbour, preparing to head back out to plunder our oceans.

We're afraid that a change of name and flag can't hide your truecolours. That's why we've locked up four of these illegal fishing boatsin Rostock harbour and handed the keys to the responsible regional andfederal ministers. We want the Germangovernment to prevent these pirate fishingvessels leaving port.

Update - The One That Didn't Get Away
Under cover of darkness, the fifth vessel in the blacklisted fleet sneakedaway to Poland. Activists have paid a visit to the Carmen, in the port of Swinoujscie, wrappingit in chains and hanging a banner that reads "Stop Pirate Fishing".

TheCarmen is currently in dry dock, presumably in preparation for anotherbout of pirate fishing. As in Germany, where the sister vessels wereillegally re-supplied, the Polish government are so far ignoring theirobligation to prevent the Carmen from re-supplying, despite its beingblacklisted for repeated breaches of European, north east and northwest Atlantic fishing regulations.

"The fact that the German government allows known pirate fishingvessels to set sail is incredible," says Andrea Cederquist, marinebiologist at Greenpeace Germany. "Knowing these ships are leaving portwithout making sure they will keep to international fishery agreementsin future is unacceptable."

Pirate fishing vessels are an enormous problem, particularly on thehigh seas and in the coastal waters of developing countries. Theysteal fish - often the staple food - from some of the poorest countriesin the world and destroy the livelihoods of fishermen who live there.

These trawlers have set their sights on either plundering the richfishing waters off the coast of West Africa (Mauritania) or goingfarther afield to trawl the depths of the Pacific. Both are regionswhere proper controls are lacking and pirate fishing is flourishing.

Pirate fisheries are estimated to cost countries between US$4-9billion  each year. They also wipe-out the unknown worlds of thedeep-sea. Many pirate vessels are engaged in a fishing technique calledbottom trawling which is known to cause huge destruction to vulnerabledeep-sea marine life such as cold water corals.

Flagsof convenience

Flags of convenience allow a vessel to fish virtually anywhere on thehigh seas with impunity. Pirates buy flags of convenience from "openregistries" that have few or no limitations on accepting foreignvessels and make little pretence of any genuine link to the vessel.These registries offer a loophole around many regulations.

Initially, companies and individuals took advantage of flags ofconvenience to evade tax and/or reduce safety requirements, tariffs,labour requirements and other shipping regulations. However, asregional fisheries management organisations developed, unscrupulousfishing vessel owners began to reflag under flags of convenience toavoid fishing regulations or limitations on catch.

Because these flag states do not usually belong to regional fisheriesmanagement organisations, they are not bound by their decisions andregulations. Therefore, they allow pirates flying their flags tocontinue their destructive activities.

Flags forsale

Obtaining a flag of convenience is as easyand quick as afew taps on the keyboard. Any notion of genuine link is cynically putaside for a few dollars and registration is sometimes provided within24 hours.

Over the next few months, in partnership with the Environmental JusticeFoundation, our ship the Esperanza will expose how fishing pirates inthe Atlantic are wiping out marine life and destroying the livelihoodsof the communities dependent on our oceans for food.

So what needs to be done to stop this? Our Oceans Campaigner SariTolvanen thinks governments should put their money where their mouth is- and now. "They need to stop these boats from leaving port and supporta UN moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. This wouldsend a signal to pirates that their days of plundering the oceans areover," she said.

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