Flags of convenience…

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“More than 60 percent of our planet’s oceans are beyond national jurisdiction. That is, they lie not only beyond nations’ twelve-nautical-mile territorial seas but also beyond their two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs). The combined surface area of those remote waters–the high seas–constitutes fully half of the surface area of the entire Earth.

An area that vast, that distant, and that difficult to traverse is a frontier in more ways than one. Besides the biological frontier of the high seas’ largely unexplored depths, there is also the legal frontier that makes the high seas so similar to the largely ungoverned Wild West of nineteenth-century America.

The fact that these waters belong not to just one nation, as the American frontier did (well, most of it anyway), but to the international community as a whole has made both the creation and the enforcement of an effective set of rules and regulations governing fishing on the ‘global commons’ a terrific struggle…

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Of course it’s one thing to create laws and another to enforce them. It’s an enormously daunting challenge to police an oceanic domain that covers literally half of Earth. And it’s made even more difficult by the massive amounts of time, effort, and money spent by some of the most powerful players in today’s global fishing industry to avoid those rules and regulations.

Among the most effective tools used by the industry to game the system are flags of convenience. 

No one has ever pretended that flags of convenience were created for any purpose other than one: to give the owners of commercial ships a way to avoid the taxes, laws, and other inconvenient restrictions placed on them by their own countries. 

International maritime law requires that every commercial vessel be registered by a state. That state is responsible for licensing the ship as well as for taking legal responsibility for the ship’s actions. The law requires that the ship fly the flag of that state for the purposes of identification; this is called the ship’s ‘flag state,’ and under UNCLOS, a ship sailing the high seas is subject only to the jurisdiction of its flag state.

You would think a ship’s flag state would be the same as the nationality of its owner, as well as the location of the ship’s home port. More often than you might think, you would be wrong.

You might also think that the flag state–the state responsible for enforcing all the international laws the ships flying its flag are subject to–would take that responsibility seriously and be diligent in its duties. Again, more often than you might assume, you would be wrong…

The practice itself was, and still is, called flagging out, and it is a form of the ‘outsourcing’ that is the cause of such anguish in the United States…

Naturally, American fisheries’ early lead both in the practice of using flags of convenience and in where they chose to flag out their boats soon prompted the rest of the fishing world to follow suit…

Of those countries, none issue more flags today than Panama, Liberia, and Malta. In fact, those three tiny nations account for the flags of almost 40 percent of the world’s entire merchant fleet measured by deadweight tonnage.

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Other popular targets for flagging out are the Bahamas, Bermuda, and a little country whose name often seems to crop up when discussing free-flowing, relatively unpoliced international finance: the Cayman Islands. There are even some entirely landlocked nations that provide flags of convenience, such as Bolivia, Slovakia, and Mongolia. It’s so simple to flag out a ship that some nations, including Panama, allow the application process to be initiated online and completed by fax, making it easy to forge documents. The sweep of this practice is so broad it’s almost dizzying. That BP drilling rig, the Deepwater Horizon? It flew a Marshall Islands flag of convenience…

What we’re concerned with is the ways in which the exploitation and outright defiance of international law by commercial fisheries affect the oceans and the sea life within them, as well as the crew members who fish for that sea life.”

Oceana