DOUALA, Cameroon (AP) — The Trondheim is a familiar sight off the coast of West Africa -- a soccer field-sized ship, plying the waters from Nigeria to Mauritania as it pulls in tons of mackerel and sardines, flying the red, yellow and green flag of Cameroon.
But aside from the flag, there is almost nothing about the Trondheim that is Cameroonian.
Once, it operated under the name of 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 only in 2019 that it began flying the banner of Cameroon.
The Trondheim is one of several vessels that have been 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.
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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 like Cameroon offer shipping companies a veil of secrecy that allows them to mask their operations.
That secrecy, the experts say, also undermine global attempts to sustainably manage fisheries and threatens the livelihoods of millions of people in regions like 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 flagged fishing 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.
“This is a big issue,” said Aristide Takoukam, a biologist and founder of the African Marine Mammal Conservation Organization, a non-profit based in Cameroon that monitors illegal fishing. “I don’t think Cameroon is able to monitor these vessels that are flying Cameroon flags outside its waters.”
Cameroon has long been criticized for lax oversight of its fishing fleet. A study published last year in the journal African Security documented deep-rooted corruption in the ministries that oversee the fishing industry. In that same year, the European Commission issued a “yellow card” to the country, warning it to step up its actions against illegal fishing.
The commission identified a series of shortcomings, including that the country had registered several fishing vessels -- some of them accused of illegal fishing -- under its flag in the past months, raising concerns about the nation’s ability to efficiently control and monitor the activities of its fleet.
If Cameroon does not comply after its initial warning, the commission can issue a “red card,” effectively listing them as a non-cooperating country. And it can ban their fish products from entering EU markets.
The commission’s report named a dozen fishing vessels registered between 2019 and 2020 whose names were not provided to them by Cameroonian authorities. At least eight of the 12 identified vessels are managed or owned by European companies. The AP found six more vessels not included in the EU report.
The European Commission did not respond to the AP’s requests for comment.
Data from Windward and Lloyd’s List Intelligence, two maritime intelligence companies, reveals an accelerated growth in the number of vessels that sail under the Cameroonian flag in the past four years, from 14 vessels in 2018 to more than 129 in 2022. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, Cameroon’s fishing capacity is now nine times larger than it was before 2018.
While the number of flagged ships has grown, the resources to monitor them have not kept pace, a review of budget documents show. The documents show that the budget for the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries’ control and supervision of fisheries declined 32 percent from 2019 to last year.
While countries have a right to allow vessels to adopt their nationality and fly their flag, Article 91 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea requires a “genuine link” to be established between a vessel and its flag state.
Despite this, foreign vessels in countries with open registries often have little to no relationship with their flag state. The responsibility falls on the flagged country to control operations of the vessels in their fleet, including any illegal activity caused in other nations’ waters or on the high seas.
“The very point of flags of convenience is that it’s easy, it’s cheap, you can do it quickly, and they are not necessarily looking at your history of compliance,” said Julien Daudu, senior campaigner at the Environmental Justice Foundation, a British NGO focusing on environmental and human rights issues.
Paul Nkesi, a representative of the agency that oversees fisheries, the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries, says that although the government recognizes the need to step up its surveillance of industrial trawlers, all vessels are registered lawfully in Cameroon.
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