Reflagging by EU fishing vessels - the need for stricter standards

Imagine a situation where an EU vessel fishes in non-EU waters under an official, EU-funded agreement (Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreement or SFPA) that provides access to third country waters. Once the fishery resources negotiated by the EU for those waters have been caught, the vessel reflags to a non-EU country – possibly one that is known to be failing to stop illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. By changing its flag (referred to as “reflagging”), the EU operator is free to set up a private agreement with the coastal State and to continue fishing in the same waters for the rest of the year. When EU fishing opportunities become available again, the same vessel re-enters the EU fleet, applying for a new authorization to fish under the (S)FPA.

An investigation conducted by Oceana and its partners* analysed the reflagging behaviour of 771 EU vessels over 50 metres in the EU fleet register during the period 2005-2015: 23 vessels were identified to have entered or re-entered the EU fleet register, having previously operated under flags of non-EU countries known to be failing in
their efforts to stop IUU fishing, as indicated by EU decisions to red or yellow “card” those countries under the EU IUU Regulation. Upon returning to the flag of an EU member state, most of these 23 vessels were granted authorisations to fish in non-EU waters, sometimes even within three days. This suggests that applications by vessels to fish under such agreements may not be subject to adequate scrutiny by member states, despite concerns as to the level of control exerted by the previous flag States over vessels registered to them. This was particularly evident within the Mauritania and Morocco (S)FPAs, for which the EU pays sums of €59,125,000 and €30,000,000 annually.

Need for stricter standards

Whilst reflagging itself is legal, it can provide a loophole that enables EU vessels to repeatedly and purposefully switch to flags of carded non-EU countries. Switching to the flags of these countries allows for behaviour that is neither consistent with the objectives of the Common Fisheries Policy[i] nor with standards which aim to prevent vessels from engaging in unsustainable or illegal fishing practices. Those vessels that conduct such reflagging also obtain an unfair advantage when marketing their seafood in the EU.  

Any vessel returning to the EU fleet should undergo a thorough analysis of its previous fishing activities to ensure compliance with EU laws and standards, yet such a requirement still does not exist under the current legal framework – the 2008 Fishing Authorisation Regulation.

In December 2015, the European Commission presented a proposal for a future regulation on the sustainable management of external fishing fleets (2015/636). This revision of the current law presents a critical opportunity to address loopholes and to stop EU vessels from engaging in the reflagging practices outlined above.

*Oceana is working in a coalition of non-governmental organisations to secure the harmonised and effective implementation of the European Union’s Regulation to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing

Find out more in our factsheet: Reflagging behaviour by EU fishing vessels

 [i] i. e. Part VI (External Policy) of Regulation (EU) No. 1380/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2013 on the Common Fisheries Policy 


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