A Greenpeace report released today exposes the role of "flag of convenience", or pirate, fishing(1) in the destruction of marine ecosystems worldwide. In the report, Greenpeace criticises the European Union (EU) for trying to protect the true owners of these fishing vessels during FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation) negotiations on a global plan to address the problem of pirate fishing.

On the eve of the last round of negotiations to adopt an international plan of action against pirate fishing (FAO, Rome, 21- 23 February 2001), and only a few days after the publication of a FAO report exposing the deplorable status of fish stocks worldwide, Greenpeace urged the EU to show its commitment to protect what is left of the oceans' marine life and take immediate action to put an end to the ongoing plundering of the seas.

"Pirate fishing should be treated as illegal and dealt with accordingly," said Hélène Bours of Greenpeace International. "The FAO meeting opening tomorrow in Rome is the last chance for the EU and other governments to take strong concerted action against the plunder of the world's oceans by fleets operating outside international rules and regulations."

Greenpeace is extremely disappointed with the FAO process. The draft International Plan of Action (IPOA) in its current form will fail to achieve its objectives, that is to "prevent, deter and eliminate Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing." The most striking example of the lack of commitment by governments to take effective action was the elimination of a provision that would make it illegal to trade in fish or fish products derived from IUU fishing.

The environmental group also noted that the EU was very reluctant to take action against companies and true owners of FOC fishing vessels, under the pretext that it would interfere with rights of individuals. This position is most certainly based on the fact that many EU companies own or operate FOC vessels. Lloyds data for 1999 reveals that 168 vessels flying the flag of one of the top 10 FOC countries are owned by companies registered in European Union countries. Taiwanese companies own a further 169 of these vessels, while 52 FOC vessels are owned by South Korean companies and 41 by Japanese companies.

"Some of these companies may even have received substantial subsidies from their governments to flag their vessels to FOCs. Under EU subsidies regulations, EU boat owners are actually entitled to request EU funding to transfer vessels permanently to countries such Belize or Honduras," said Bours. "Such use of public money is scandalous. While the EU is spending money to transfer vessels to FOCs, Japan and Taiwan are making an effort to repatriate and eliminate part of their FOC tuna fishing vessels, and contribute to the elimination of pirate fishing."

The EU should also support measures to close harbours to FOC vessels. For instance, the port of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (Spain), where Greenpeace observed numerous FOC vessels, is particularly well-known for supporting FOC fishing fleets operating in the Atlantic ocean. In the meanwhile, South Africa has prohibited landing by FOC fishing vessels in its harbours such as Cape Town, one of the most important harbours for fishing fleets and transport and resupply vessels in the Atlantic.

Greenpeace has been actively campaigning against pirate fishing. Last year, it conducted ship expeditions in the Southern ocean and the Atlantic ocean to document illegal fishing activities for Patagonian toothfish and tuna. In the Atlantic, Greenpeace documented and took direct action against pirate vessels catching high value sashimi-grade bigeye tuna and some of the cargo vessels transporting the tuna to Japan. Those vessels were flying the flags of Belize, Panama and Cambodia, all flags of convenience countries (FOC).

Greenpeace demands that governments:

  • close ports to FOC fishing and support vessels;

  • close markets to FOC-caught fish;

  • close or otherwise prevent companies and nationals from owning or operating FOC fishing and support vessels.

The report "Pirate Fishing plundering the oceans", February 2001, is available in English, French and Spanish.

Hélène Bours, Greenpeace International, mobile (+32) 0477 430 171
Luisa Colasimone, Greenpeace Communication, mobile +31 6 21 29 69 20
Lorenzo Consoli, Greenpeace EU, mobile (+32) 0496 122 112


(1) Greenpeace considers "pirates" primarily those fishing vessels that fly Flags of Convenience. Greenpeace also considers vessels servicing FOC fishing vessels (for fish transport and resupply) as "pirate" vessels regardless of their flag as they help FOC fishing vessels to continue to avoid restrictions and actions by other states such as harbor and market closure.


FOC (Flags of Convenience)

A "Flag of Convenience" country is one that allows fishing vessels to operate under its flag without having the intention to ensure that they abide by relevant regulations (despite the Law of the Sea provisions governing flag state responsibility). Such flags are used by fishing vessel owners and companies to avoid fishing conservation and management regulations as well as safety and labor standards.

Although some of these FOC countries are members of or signatories to, or otherwise participate in, the relevant regional fisheries organizations or arrangements (e.g. Equatorial Guinea in ICCAT), they consistently fail to take responsibility for ensuring that their flagged vessels obey all of the rules and regulations.

Companies using flags of convenience are sometimes based in countries that are members of relevant regional/international fisheries organizations.

IUU Definitions

According to Greenpeace: ILLEGAL FISHING is fishing conducted by vessels:

  • of countries that are parties to a fisheries organization or arrangement but operate in contravention of its rules; or

  • in a country's waters without permission from the country; or

  • on the high seas without showing a flag or other markings.
UNREPORTED FISHING, as the name indicates, concerns fishing activities not reported to the relevant national or regional authorities by the fishing vessels or the flag state, whether they are parties or not of the relevant fisheries organizations or arrangements. This category includes under-reporting of catch or misreporting, such as of tonnage, species or fishing area. UNREGULATED FISHING is fishing conducted by vessels flying the flag of countries which are not parties of, signatories to, or participate in relevant fisheries organizations or arrangements, and therefore consider themselves not bound by their rules. This is the most obvious loophole in international law which manifests itself concretely through the FOC phenomenon.