Governments from over 40 countries participating in an international conference this week failed to adopt a plan to effectively stop the plundering of ocean resources by pirate fishing vessels - denounced Greenpeace. Instead, most countries fought to protect their political and economic interests, even when that meant perpetuating the very problems they had committed to stop.

Governments met this week to negotiate an international agreement at the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (UNFAO) Conference on "Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported Fisheries (IUU)". The draft agreement had initially contained important proposals to close ports and markets to fleets fishing illegally on the high seas and to penalise companies that own and operate them. Most of these proposals were either rejected or severely weakened.

In particular, a number of countries led by Mexico and Brazil opposed and ultimately defeated a proposal calling on individual states to adopt laws making it illegal to import or trade in illegally caught fish. "If they cannot even agree that the sale of a product obtained by theft is a crime, then how can we expect the UN FAO agreement to even begin to address one of the most serious threats to world fisheries", denounced Matthew Gianni, Greenpeace International Oceans Campaigner attending the meeting in Rome.

Coastal states such as Angola, Mauritania, and Nigeria, had called on governments to agree to market closure and other mechanisms to deter poaching and plundering of marine resources in their national waters, as well as on the high seas, by foreign fleets. These were backed by Norway and the United States.

Illegal fishing is a major threat to fish and marine biodiversity (1). The UNFAO estimates that 60-70% of the world's major fish stocks are fully exploited or overexploited. Illegal fishing fleets are rampant in the Atlantic Ocean and the waters around Antarctica among other ocean areas. They seriously undermine international efforts to conserve fish stocks and, in the Southern Ocean, are estimated to kill tens of thousands of albatrosses and petrels as 'bycatch' each year.

Current loopholes in international law allow a fleet of some 1300 large- scale fishing vessels flying "flags of convenience" to avoid international fisheries regulations and plunder the seas at will. According to research conducted by Greenpeace, the majority of the companies that own these vessels are based in Spain, Taiwan, and "flag of convenience" countries such as Panama, Belize and Honduras.