Putting an end to ‘flag hopping’, a guarantee against illegal fishing

During the week starting 9 June the Committee on Fisheries (COFI) held its 31st session, at the headquarters of the FAO in Rome, focussing on the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU).

Among the measures adopted were a raft of international guidelines giving States greater responsibility for the activities of fishing vessels that fly their flag.

Although they are no precise figures, the FAO estimates that this type of fishing is responsible for between 11 and 26 million tonnes of fish landed each year, with a value of between 10 and 23 billion dollars.

The scale of these numbers has the possibility to undermine “the efforts undertaken at national, regional or international to manage fisheries in a sustainable manner,” said Árni M. Mathiesen, FAO Assistant Director-General for Fisheries and Aquaculture.

Hence the importance of the guidelines adopted by the members of COFI, which, though they are voluntary, are a clear sign of the intention of the countries to adhere to a shared set of standards for flag state performance.

“Taken together with FAO’s 2009 Agreement on Port State Measures, which works to prevent entry into ports by IUU fishing vessels and therefore block the flow of IUU-caught fish into national and international markets, these guidelines will provide a potent tool to combat IUU fishing in the coming decades,” added Mathiesen.

Flag states are already obliged to maintain a register of vessels, together with information on their authorisation to fish, such as the species they may fish for and the type of gear they may use.

However, many fishing vessels engaged in illegal activities circumvent such control measures by ‘flag hopping’ – repeatedly registering with new flag States to dodge detection.

The Voluntary Guidelines, in line with international maritime law, aim to end this practice, among other things, by promoting greater cooperation and information exchange between countries, so that flag states are in a position to refuse to register vessels that have previously been reported for IUU fishing, or that are already registered with another flag state.

The guidelines also provide recommendations on how countries could encourage compliance and take action against non-compliance by vessels, as well as on how to enhance international cooperation to assist developing countries to meet their flag state responsibilities.

As a complementary measure, at the same COFI meeting, Spain confirmed it would contribute 250,000 euros to the creation of a Global Record of Fishing Vessels, to centralise information on such vessels, as well as on refrigerated transport vessels and fishing support vessels operating throughout the world.

This is a basic tool in the fight against IUU, allowing the identification of vessels that operate legally.