Flags of non-compliance

Flag States who sell their flag to fishing vessels without checking the history of the vessel, that it is safe and seaworthy, that it is the vessel it claims to be, and who do not take responsibility for the actions of the vessels are known as Flags of non-compliance.

Every state has the right to register ships and in doing so grants its nationality to ships flying its flag; it then becomes responsible for ensuring that its flagged vessels act according to international law, wherever they are located. Ships are governed by the rules and regulations of the state whose flag they fly and cannot be flagged to more than one country. In theory there must be a ‘genuine link’ between the state and the ship, but this is not defined and many countries operate ‘open registers’ which are available to any ship-owner regardless of nationality –it’s a useful source of revenue.

This is not a problem – as long as the flag state is able and willing to carry out its responsibilities, but flags of non-compliance do not.

There are many advantages of operating under a flag of non-compliance for illegal fishers:

  • Registration is quick and easy and can be done over the internet for a few hundred dollars;
  • No questions are asked about previous history of IUU fishing or the condition of the vessel;
  • Owners avoid regulations enforced by their own countries;
  • Gaps in international regulations means that it is not illegal to fish on the high seas even in a Regional fisheries management organisation (RFMO) area, so a vessel can disregard management arrangements by flagging to a country that is not party to an agreement;
  • RMFO inspectors cannot board a vessel without permission of the flag state, which is often withheld by flags of non-compliance;
  • Labour legislation can be avoided;
  • Taxes are low or non-existent;
  • The identity of the owners is often hidden – some registers advertise their anonymity;
  • Vessels can re-flag and change names several times in a season to confuse fisheries authorities and avoid prosecution for IUU fishing.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation currently lists 35 registries as flags of non-compliance, with the largest numbers of fishing vessels registered to Honduras, Panama and Cambodia. There are even three landlocked countries, Bolivia, Moldova and Mongolia with registers. It’s a source of income, although Mongolia is thought to gain only a few hundred thousand dollars per year, little compared to the millions of dollars in profits made by some IUU operators. It is estimated that about 15% of the world’s large-scale fishing vessels are registered to FoCs or listed as ‘flag unknown’ and ICCAT estimates that 10% of tuna is caught illegally by vessels flying flags of convenience.

There is no easy solution and even responsible states have room for improvement: of the 64 countries responding to a 2004 survey of UN FAO Member Countries, only 23 had control measures in place to ensure that their flagged vessels complied with high seas conservation and management measures and half did not check for a history of IUU fishing before registering fishing vessels.

Changing country of registration or ‘flag hopping’ is common practice for vessel owners involved in illegal fishing.

One such example is the fishing vessel Yongding, long suspected of illegally catching Patagonian toothfish, the vessel was finally detained in Cape Verde in 2016. It wasn’t easy to track the vessel down; like many other illegal fishing vessels, it had registered under nine countries or ‘flags’, including many notorious flags of non-compliance, and operated under at least 11 different names since 2001.


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