EU must make public who really owns its fishing fleets

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is one of the most serious threats to our oceans.

It contributes directly to overfishing; undermines the livelihoods and food security of coastal communities; creates unfair competition for legally operating fishers; and it is often associated with human, drug and arms trafficking, tax evasion, money laundering and labor rights violations in the seafood sector.

It leads to the loss of billions of dollars each year and hinders the development of coastal countries.

Lack of transparency in the global fishing industry is a key driver of illegal fishing and associated crimes.

The remote nature of these fishing activities and the opacity of operations in the industry make it difficult to identify illegal fishing vessels and their owners.

Despite the installation of tracking systems and other advances to improve transparency within the fishing industry, EU citizens can still own fishing vessels in countries that have received an official warning. of the European Union for their inability to combat illegal fishing.

As a recent study by the European IUU Fishing Coalition revealed, several vessels currently fishing under the flags of non-EU countries that have been warned for their failure to tackle illegal fishing are owned by citizens of the EU who make profits within the EU.

For example, several Latvian vessels identified in this analysis have reflagged to Cameroon, but the true owners still appear to be based in the EU.

Cameroon? Russia? EU?

The lax national fishing rules and lack of controls in some non-EU countries like Cameroon therefore continue to be exploited by Europeans, with the benefits of any illegal catches going to the EU.

The lack of vessel ownership information within the global fishing industry is hampering progress in the fight against illegal fishing, as it prevents authorities from determining the ultimate owner of illegally fishing vessels.

Although fishing vessels may be halfway around the world, EU-based end-owners are reaping the rewards.

“Reflagging” refers to the process of changing the flag of a vessel from one country to another and is a practice that can help illegal fishers avoid fishing laws or controls.

Deflagging is not only used by illegal fishers. For example, Russian companies have been reflagging to other countries at a record pace in an attempt to avoid sanctions imposed on Russia due to the invasion of Ukraine.

Although it is legal to change the flag of the country under which a fishing vessel operates, it poses a problem when fishing vessel owners try to circumvent fishing laws or control efforts by opportunistically assigning their flag. to a country with looser rules, also known as “convenience lodges”.

A vessel using a flag of convenience is registered under a foreign flag that has no connection with the nationality of the owner or operator of the vessel.

Technically, international law does not permit such a practice. However, the reality is that vessels can choose the flag that allows them to access new fishing grounds or escape fishing rules or sanctions.

These countries can allow ship owners to remain anonymous by using front companies, leading to a massive lack of transparency about the true owners that facilitates transnational organized crime, corruption and contributes to the overexploitation of the ocean.

The EU is currently the champion in the fight against illegal fishing and its laws have already prevented some abuses by its fishing vessels.

However, the European Union must continue to respect its policy of zero tolerance against illegal fishing.

As a member of the European Parliament, I will continue to work to eliminate secrecy from the fishing sector and to fight for transparency requirements by asking the European institutions to publish information on shipowners.

This is a matter of general interest and the European Parliament has recently taken a stand to fight against flags of convenience.

Green light for pirates

This practice is of particular concern in developing coastal countries with which the EU signs Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreements (SFPAs) that allow EU vessels to fish in their waters.

Indeed, the study also revealed that vessels had changed flag to non-EU countries with which the EU has an active DPA.

Vessels fishing under these agreements are subject to an exclusivity clause that prohibits EU vessels from fishing in coastal state waters outside of the formal access agreement.

However, the study found that at least three EU-owned vessels were reflagged to a non-EU country with an active SFPA, namely a Spanish-owned vessel flying the Mauritanian flag.

In addition, two Latvian vessels have changed flag to Cameroon and Georgia, but are probably fishing in Mauritanian waters.

Normally, if the EU and a SFPA partner country determine that fishing opportunities have been exhausted, all EU vessels are prohibited from fishing in the waters of the partner country.

But these EU-based shipowners can retain access to these areas through national quotas, as their vessels no longer fly the flag of an EU member state.

The financial benefits of these fishing activities still end up with the EU-based beneficial owners, whose vessels continue to profit from the resources in the state’s coastal waters.

It also creates an uneven playing field for EU operators who play by the rules.

As the European Parliament recently decided to renew the EU-Mauritania fisheries agreement for another five years, the majority of its MEPs have expressed concerns about the reflagging in the region.

This is a strong signal: we will not stop illegal fishing and the plundering of the seas by those who do not respect the rules if we do not tackle this situation.


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