Fishing fleets’ fishy business
Cameroon a safe haven for foreign vessels under panned ‘flags of convenience’ system
DOUALA, Cameroon — The Trondheim is a familiar sight off West Africa’s coast — a soccer field-sized ship pulling in tons of mackerel and sardines while flying the red, yellow and green flag of Cameroon.
But there is almost nothing about the Trondheim that is Cameroonian.
Once, it operated under the name the King Fisher and sailed under the flag of the Caribbean nation St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Then, it switched to Georgia, the former Soviet republic. It was in 2019 that it began flying the banner of Cameroon.
The Trondheim is one of several vessels reflagged under Cameroon’s growing fishing fleet which have changed names and been accused of illicit activities at sea. Currently, 14 of these vessels are owned or managed by companies based in European Union member states: Belgium, Malta, Latvia and Cyprus, an investigation by The Associated Press found.
The AP examined over 80 ship profiles on MarineTraffic, a maritime analytics provider, and matched them with company records through IHS Maritime & Trade and the International Maritime Organization or IMO.
“They’re interested in the flag, they’re not interested in Cameroon,” said Beatrice Gorez, coordinator for the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements, a group of organizations highlighting the impacts of EU-African fisheries arrangements that identified the recent connection between companies in EU member states and the Cameroon fleet.
Each of the vessels changed flags to Cameroon between 2019 and 2021, though they had no obvious link to the country and did not fish in its waters. The Trondheim and at least five others have a history of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, according to a report by the environmental group Greenpeace. Both the vessels and their owners conceal what they catch, where it goes and who is financially benefiting from it, maritime and company records show.
In recent years, Cameroon has emerged as one of several go-to countries for the widely criticized “flags of convenience” system, under which companies can — for a fee — register their ships in a foreign country even though there is no link between the vessel and the nation whose flag it flies.
The ships are supposed to abide by that nation’s fishing agreements with other countries. But experts say weak oversight and enforcement of fishing fleets by countries with open registries offer shipping companies the secrecy that allows them to mask their operations.
That secrecy, experts say, also undermines global attempts to sustainably manage fisheries and threatens the livelihoods of millions of people in regions such as West Africa. Cameroonian officials say all the ships that fly its flag are legally registered and abide by all of it laws. But regulators in Europe recently warned the country that its inability to provide oversight of its fishing fleet could lead to a ban on fish from the country.
Cameroon’s fleet is minuscule compared to countries such as Liberia, Panama or the Marshall Islands. But the rapid adoption of the country’s flag by some shipping companies accused of illegal fishing is raising alarm.
While countries have a right to allow vessels to fly their flag, Article 91 of the
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea requires a “genuine link” to be established between vessel and flag state.