Flags of Convenience, Terrorism, Environmental Damage and Starvation

B. McPherson
Pirates roam the high seas. They have been blamed for causing environmental damage, for fostering terrorism and for looting the oceans.

Forget the image of Captain Hook or Pirates of the Caribbean. These modern day pirates have business suits and may never sail the high seas.

These pirates don’t fly the Jolly Roger. They fly flags of convenience.

The first flag of convenience is believed to have been flown in the 1920s. After WWII the overseas registry of ships increased as a former US Secretary of State formed a company in conjunction with the country of Liberia. That company eventually devolved to become the International Bank of Washington.

When things got too hot in Liberia with their civil wars other countries with weak pollution laws, few or no international agreements regarding fish quotas, civil rights were targeted. Georgia, Dominica, Belize have offered their flags for sale. The Republic of the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific now is one of the leading registries for ship owners who wish to dodge rules and regulations in countries like Canada and the US.  In 1990 the company founded by Edward Stettinius morphed into the International Registries Inc. This corporation is based in Reston, Virginia, USA.

Fishing Pirate fishing vessels are big business taking an estimated US$4 billion of fish and seafood annually. These organized large operations ignore the fishing regulations, catch limits, environmental damage. Pirates off the coasts of Africa are leading to starvation of the residents who find smaller and smaller catches. The Somali coast has been doubly hit with pirate dumping of toxic wastes and pirate fishing.

Terrorism Pirate vessels use flags of convenience to transport people in the international slave trade. Criminals, equipment, weapons, bombs can all be secreted in ships that are able to ignore many of the international agreements. It is not far-fetched to see a terrorist group modify a ship like an oil tanker into a giant bomb, causing unimaginable destruction. Ad hoc terrorist groups may form in formerly peaceful areas as the residents become increasingly desperate for food as the pirates sieve the oceans.

Crime Flag of Convenience vessels can flout international embargos if the country that they are registered to is not a signatory. The Cambodian registry, now closed, had been accused of allowing breaking of oil embargos, trafficking people and transporting drugs.

Working Conditions It is well known that seamen working on ships registered in Britain, USA and Canada enjoy reasonable working conditions or have the means to seek redress. People working on ships of convenience do not have those same rights. The hours of work, safety and pay are usually considered substandard.

Environmental Damage Pirate fishing vessels are front and centre here. There is a growing awareness that in addition to sucking the ocean of its fish, those animals considered as by-catch are killed in the process. Often there is more by-catch than target fish. Fishing equipment is unregulated, there are no licenses paid for, no onboard observers and no catch documentation.

Poorly maintained vessels create a hazard if they sink or run aground. There have been some notable oil tankers fouling the ocean. The grand-daddy of oil spills involved the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. I have no knowledge of its maintenance or structural integrity, I mention it because it is owned ultimately by  an American company. The Deepwater Horizon was registered in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Ports of Convenience The port at Las Palmas, Canary Islands, Spain surfaces again and again as the go to place if you have stolen fish. The illegally caught fish can be mixed with legitimately caught fish and sent to the European markets.

It is ironic and sad that Americans are fighting the drug trade and dying for it. They are fighting terrorist groups at home and overseas and dying for it. At the same time Americans are front and centre selling flags of convenience to those who contribute to those very things.

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