With Fish Fight 2 about to get under way, discards will be thrust back into the limelight. But there’s a bigger problem floating on the high seas as Simon Creasey discovers

Pirates used to plunder boats for their riches. Not any more.

These days, they’re more likely to seize the people on board to hold to ransom. Or to be involved in a criminal activity that garners fewer sensational headlines but is equally, if not more, lucrative plundering the sea itself.

Worth an estimated $10bn to $23bn to the criminal gangs involved, pirate fishing or illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing as it’s more commonly known has become a problem of “nightmare” proportions, admits Maria Damanaki, commissioner for maritime affairs and fisheries at the European Commission. And not just because of the financial cost involved.

It brings misery to local fishermen and coastal communities. Many pirate trawlers also use child labour or press gang crews whose passports and travel documents are then confiscated. They are paid little or no wages to work in squalid conditions.

Loveable rogues of the Pirates of the Caribbean mould their masters are not. They are men who steal with impunity thanks to so-called flags of convenience, which allow vessel owners to register a ship in a sovereign state different to the one they hail from and then fly that state’s ensign. So what’s fuelling this burgeoning “industry” and what can be done to combat it?

It’s difficult to say when exactly pirate fishing started to take off on a commercial scale, but growing global demand for fish, particularly in the Far East, has undoubtedly seen it escalate over the past decade. Put simply, Europe eats a lot more fish than its seas deliver. The New Economics Foundation calculated recently that Europe eats what it fishes by July each year. Half the fish it consumes comes from elsewhere.

It’s little wonder many EU fishing vessels have moved to distant fishing grounds grounds like the seas off the west coast of Africa. These waters support one of the world’s most productive marine ecosystems. They also provide fertile territory for IUU fishing operations to thrive. There is little monitoring of fishing activity in the area and this allows fleets to illegally enter exclusive economic zones (EEZ) that extend 200 miles out to sea, and even enter areas reserved for artisanal fishing as little as four miles from shore.

The problem is particularly acute in African waters. Indeed, experts reckon catches are 40% higher than actually reported as a result of illegal fishing. The veracity of this extraordinary claim was tested by a five-week research project undertaken by Greenpeace in early 2010. During the project the NGO’s ship, Arctic Sunrise, sailed the waters of Mauritania and Senegal to monitor foreign fishing in the region. In total 130 vessels were observed of which 93 were foreign 61 of these were from the EU.

There’s no suggestion they were all engaging in IUU fishing. Many were from legitimate European fishing companies operating within the rules. But it does illustrate how much further afield fishing boats now roam and, worryingly, it also identified a number of vessels fishing under flags of convenience.

The practice is commonplace and used to be employed by owners to reduce operating costs, but in the case of pirate fishing, trawlers fly a flag of convenience to avoid the regulations of the country the business is registered in. The practice isn’t illegal but it is highly questionable. Some countries conduct little, if any, monitoring of fleets registered to fly their flags. For many, it’s now little more than a money-making racket, with flags going for as little as $500 over the internet in some instances.

Global hotspots highlighted by NGOs include land-locked Mongolia, Nepal and Panama, with the latter identified as one of the worst offenders. African countries have also been lured into selling their sovereignty for next to no money, according to Steve Trent, executive director at the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a UK-based charity that campaigns against pirate fishing. “Until recently, the Sierra Leone registry was offering flags of convenience,” he says. “They had the very best of intentions, but the registry was being operated by a company out of Miami and the Sierra Leone government had zero capacity to exercise its regulatory responsibility.”

Flags of convenience are a “scourge” that needs to be tackled head on by a “coherent international regime and set of actions”, argues Trent.

Such calls are not going unheeded. The EC recently issued a warning about activities in Panama, Belize and Sri Lanka, which it fears may not fully be complying with EU fishing regulations. Meanwhile, countries such as Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Chad, Mongolia and Nepal are all understood to have been refused entry to the EU’s approved list of flag states, which consists of countries that are cooperating with the Commission to combat IUU fishing.

Co-operation of a different kind is making it even harder to tackle such illicit activities, however. Conscious of the clampdown on flags of convenience in waters far remote from the countries involved, some pirates are looking to circumnavigate the law by embarking on “joint ventures” a euphemism for state-sanctioned piracy with the authorities in West African countries to fish in their waters.

“We have had this confirmed by officials in Senegal,” says Farah Obaidullah, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace. “Because European countries are buying the flags, the Senegalese are prepared to turn a blind eye because the practice provides business. They compete with the local fleets and no longer have the scrutiny of the country that owns and operates the vessel. It’s not technically illegal but they’re being given blind consent by the state to plunder the waters of West Africa and in a way this is a worse problem because they are legitimately doing so.”

Regardless of the flag flown, pirates can raid the seas virtually unchecked because of problems with monitoring. Few West African countries have coastguards or a naval presence and the ones that do are ill-equipped to police the waters. The issue is further exacerbated by transhipment at sea via reefers refrigerated ships that take the fish to port. Often fish from IUU vessels is repackaged into boxes and stamped with the name of a legal boat.

Modern fishing vessels are also capable of doing more processing at sea, which increases the opportunity for fish laundering. When filleted, most fish looks the same so they can more easily be passed off as another species if the codes are manipulated, says Trent. “On one boat off West Africa, boxes contained different fish to what was labelled, packed in boxes from a company different to the one the boat was fishing for,” he elaborates.

There can also be monitoring difficulties in ports of convenience (ports with a reputation for turning a blind eye to flags of convenience), which are, unsurprisingly, where much of the IUU fish is landed. Fish often enters legitimate supply chains without end users being aware of its origins.

The most notorious port of convenience in Europe is Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. Although it is part of Spain and therefore the EU, the islands benefit from a free economic zone status and have what EJF describes as a “lax control over transhipment of goods”. As a result, the port has been targeted by fisheries companies in cahoots with IUU fleets.

Las Palmas serves as a gateway for a large proportion of the estimated 1.1bn worth of IUU fish imported into the EU every year (Oceanic development study 2007), with Spain being one of the biggest recipients. This April, European authorities impounded five million portions of fish, including octopus, squid, sole and shrimp, at Las Palmas on vessels owned and flagged to South Korea, China and Panama. The catch, worth around £4m, was bound for processing plants from where it would be distributed to fish counters in Spain.

It was a rare win for the authorities. But Las Palmas is not the only place where this type of activity takes place, says Obaidullah. “Other hubs have been identified both inside and outside of Europe,” she says. “In the Netherlands there are a couple of areas which are known for landing IUU fish and there are rumours that Cape Verde is a good place to start landing IUU catches.”

The Las Palmas victory only serves to illustrate the complexities facing investigators. One offending boat was the Lian Run the vessel is Chinese-owned but Panama-flagged and was about to unload its catch in a Spanish port.

Complex supply chains like this are not unusual and they require layer upon layer of paperwork. Unfortunately, paper is the operative word making documentation easier to manipulate and forge. Indeed, the 2006 report Closing the Net, produced by the High Seas Task Force, describes how IUU specialists “take advantage of paper controls and how to influence regulatory decisions to create loopholes that can then be profitably exploited”.

Even if the paperwork is robust, it can easily be undermined by inadequate procedures elsewhere, says Ivan Bartolo, from Seafish’s regulatory affairs division. “Because it’s a paper system you are really dependent on the authorities of the third countries [who issue flags of convenience] doing their job properly. If they are not then there is very little that you can do.”

Another issue is that IUU activities are often closely merged with perfectly legal operations as the EJF knows all too well. While the foundation has identified boxes of fish that have made their way into UK food supply chains from vessels involved in illegal fishing, Trent acknowledges it is all but impossible to prove the fish has been IUU-caught.

Bartolo advocates the use of DNA sampling inland to ensure species substitution hasn’t taken place, but even this would only catch a small proportion of the 1.1bn worth of IUU fish making its way into the European food chain every year. Given how tricky detection is, prevention is arguably the only real solution.

The EU introduced regulation to stop the import of IUU fishery products on 1 January 2010. Importers now have to ascertain that their export partner is able to provide validated catch consignments for every consignment entering the EU market from non-EU countries. Sadly, these laws have achieved little to date largely because when an illegal fishing company’s presence is detected in one area, it simply moves to another. Tougher action is needed, says Trent. “What we want to see is much more strict requirements introduced that ensure full supply chain transparency, with meaningful mechanisms for enforcement.”

He acknowledges many multiples and large processors have made major improvements to their fish supply chains, but believes that they too could do more, which is why the EJF this week called on retailers to join its campaign to clamp down on pirate fishing. Meanwhile, the pirates continue to plunder the waters at their convenience, with devastating consequences for legitimate fishermen and the oceans themselves.

“No one truly knows the extent of what’s going on out at sea because it is out at sea, which makes it difficult to track and monitor,” says Trent. “But everybody knows pirate fishing vessels are critically undermining the operations of legitimate fisherman, they’re undermining the controls and limits to enhance sustainability and are creating a problem at a time when, without critical effort, you will see the collapse of fish populations and entire species.”

Flags of convenience are an inconvenient truth indeed.

Pirates of the Seychelles
Hijacks, ransom demands and ships carrying armed guards on the high seas. It’s a daily reality for tuna fishermen in the Indian Ocean.

Somali pirates in the waters of the Indian Ocean are having a severe economic impact on the Seychelles’ tuna industry and, scientists warn, could cause long-term damage to the region’s fish stocks.

The number of attacks has been on the increase since 2007, but this year, it has escalated dramatically. In the year to the beginning of July, there were 122 attacks in the west half of the Indian Ocean, compared with 127 in the whole of the previous year, according to Harrie Harrison, spokesman for the European Naval Force in Somalia.

Catches are down sharply because some boat operators have fled the area over safety fears while others have changed their fishing strategy or location to avoid the Somali basin, where piracy is rife.

The upshot is a 55% fall in total revenue generated from industrial tuna fishing in the Seychelles, between 2008-9. Canners in the region have also had to bear the financial strain through higher insurance premiums covering the carriage of fish to Europe because of the heightened risks involved.

While the pirates are primarily on the look out for container ships, fishing vessels have also been targeted, says Harrison. An attack on a Spanish tuna boat in March last year led to the conviction of a gang of pirates in the Seychelles in November.

“The problem that fishing boats have is they’re easier to get on board than a freighter because they’ve got a low freeboard and you can’t put barbed wire around them like you can a freighter because fishermen need to put their nets over the side,” explains Harrison.

There’s currently a lull in pirate activity because of the monsoon weather but Harrison warns that come September, when the weather calms down, “I would anticipate the number of attacks are going to increase.”
Richard Ford