Originally a means of communication for combat ships, naval flags have evolved into a complex international language. There are flags to show other seafarers which direction a ship is about to turn, to call for medical assistance and even to warn that a ship is on fire.
The most significant flag is usually hoisted at the stern. This so-called ensign indicates in which country the ship is registered. Like all allegiances, ships can connect, disconnect, and change their association with individual countries. And it often suits them because it changes the rules they have to abide by.
This was a popular tactic during Prohibition-era America. American operators looking to serve alcohol on board realized they could re-register their ships as operating out of Panama to circumvent the unpopular US law. Since then, shipowners have chosen the flag of the country they wish to fly based on everything from which regime offered the lowest taxes and which allowed cruise lines to conduct weddings at sea. It is not uncommon for a ship to leave port flying one nation’s flag and proudly displaying the colors of another nation.
Fishing vessels are no exception to this change of flag. And this can pose a problem for international efforts to regulate the industry and catch limits for their seafarers. While fishing boats are officially allowed to re-flag, the rules state that a ship should have a real connection to the country that chooses it. But unscrupulous operators often fly a flag of convenience and choose to register in a country with more relaxed rules. This can give them access to new fishing grounds or avoid restrictions and penalties.
Research by the international maritime intelligence organization TMT has shown that African coastal states are often chosen as flags of convenience by foreign fishing fleets.
Reflagging also makes it more difficult for authorities to trace a ship’s identity, especially if it changes frequently. Vessels that repeatedly change their name, flag state or ownership are more likely to be involved in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. New research now suggests a way to tackle this problem. A study led by Global Fishing Watch and published in the journal Science Advances reveals details of how often some fishing vessels change flag and provides clues to their true history and beneficial ownership.
The researchers used GPS coordinates broadcast by transponder-equipped boats. Collectively referred to as an automatic identification system (AIS), these transponders are designed to prevent collisions. They track the locations of around 70,000 vessels, including most fishing boats. The researchers were then able to calculate where and when ships fished and called at ports.
Publicly available AIS data contains some vessel details, but these can be manipulated. Therefore, the study turned to about 40 different public registers that contain details about vessels, including name and call sign, dimensions, tonnage and fishing permits.
The researchers then used machine learning to link the two data sources, allowing them to compare identifying information on the AIS (who and what the ship claimed to be) with the formal details recorded in the registers. This allowed them to track ships throughout their lifespan and record how often fishing boats were changed flags.
This figure was relatively small as only 3% of identified fishing boats changed flags in the last ten years. However, the same was not true of the auxiliary vessels that accompany fishing expeditions to transport catch or deliver fuel. About 28% of these ships, the study found, had changed flags in the previous 10 years. And while 116 different flag states were involved in reflagging, about 20% of those countries were involved in 80% of the flag change. Most have performed in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Pacific Islands – with Panama being the most active.
How will this information help?
There are already several overlapping initiatives trying to make shipping identities and ownership more transparent. These include the Port State Measures Agreement and the Global Record of Fishing Vessels, Cooled Transport Vessels and Supply Vessels. Both require countries to carry out stricter checks on ship movements and identities and are regulated by the UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).
The new study results may help those efforts because they can show which ships are known to play fair, Park says, allowing authorities to focus their resources elsewhere.
“Suspicious or illegal activities should be checked by countries and authorities,” he says. “But we can provide some pointers so they don’t have to look at everything.”
A potential solution to tracking identity changes would be to require fishing vessels to carry a unique serial number on their hull that could be checked and verified. It’s a big step, though, and Park says a more practical first step would be to consolidate all the information already available into one comprehensive and transparent database.
“Only a small part of the fishing activity is suspicious,” he says. “More transparency helps highlight this suspicious behavior and makes it easier to address the issue.”
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