BELIZE: Where Have All the Fish Pirates Gone?
Promoting itself as the "friendly flag of quality," the International
Merchant Marine Registry of Belize has grown quickly since opening
in 1991. Today more than 1,200 ships fly the Belizean flag.
In its eagerness to expand however, the registry earned a reputation
for accepting ships that more reputable registries wouldn't
consider -- ships that are older, are in bad repair or have
histories of mismanagement.
In particular, the registry became known as a haven for vessels
engaged in fish piracy -- which is fishing without permits,
often with illegal nets and gear, and not reporting catches
to national or international authorities. Fishing for blue-fin
tuna, whose populations have plummeted in the past decade, or
the more rare Chilean sea bass (toothfish), these pirate ships
are decimating the fragile fish populations of the Atlantic
and southern oceans off the coast of Antarctica. According to
data collected by U.S. and Japanese officials, 83 Belize-flagged
ships fished illegally for tuna in 1999. Beginning in 1994,
many countries, including the United States, placed import bans
on certain species coming from Belizean vessels. These bans
are due to be lifted in 2004, however, in recognition of efforts
Belize began in 2001 to address the problem of fish piracy.
Efforts to improve the overall quality of the registry have
resulted in a fleet reduction of more than 40 percent over the
past three years, including the removal of 513 fishing vessels.
The average age of the fleet has dropped from 20 to 18 years
and the number of surveyors the registry employs to examine
vessels has increased substantially. According to the registry's
director general, Angelo Mouzouropoulos, "We have made major
strides, and it is essential, because of our history, to show
people [how the registry has improved] and get them to encourage
us and help us out. We are not 100 percent [free of all problems]
yet, but we are working to get there."
PERKS OF THE FLAG
Ship registration fees in Belize are slightly lower than those
of Liberia and Panama and vary according to a ship's gross tonnage.
Ships also can receive bonuses for "environmental excellence"
and for low detention rates when port inspectors find few major
shipboard problems. Ships registered in Belize are exempt from
local income taxes and stamp duties, but are required to pay
tonnage tax for their vessels. There are no requirements to
hire crew members from Belize who might be covered by national
labor law protections. The registry itself sets no minimum wage
or benefit requirements for crew members but does endorse standards
set by the International Labor Organization.
WHAT THE REGULATORS SAY
Belize's registry has poor ratings for the overall quality
of the fleet, registration procedures, degree of government
participation in overseeing the registry's management, and protection
of seafarers' welfare and rights. Of the 433 Belizean ships
inspected in 2001 in European and North American ports, 104
were detained until problems on board were rectified. As a result
of these high detention statistics, the registry was blacklisted
and labeled as a "high risk" flag by port inspection authorities
operating in Europe and North America in 2002. Registry representatives
acknowledge these low ratings but point out that serious changes
are under way and that future international assessments are
likely to be far more positive.
A MEMBER OF THE FLEET: THE GRAND PRINCE --
In 2000, the Belizean-flagged Grand Prince was detained
by French authorities for fishing illegally inside French territorial
waters in the Indian Ocean. On board, officials found 18 tons
of toothfish worth approximately $144,000. The vessel was a
well-known pirate vessel and had been sighted earlier that year
off-loading 150 tons of toothfish. French authorities set a
bond of $1.9 million for the Grand Prince's release.
In 2001, Belize brought the case before an international tribunal
to lower the bond. The court upheld the original bond, a decision
that international marine conservation organizations hailed
as "one of the very few real deterrents to pirate vessels operating
in a fishery where environmental stakes are extremely high."
According to press reports, the owners chose to scuttle the
ship rather than pay the fines for its release.
Belize: Where Have All the Fish Pirates Gone?
Bahamas: Cruising a Sea of Labor Complaints
Panama: Home of "Convenience"
Tonga: Closed for Security Concerns
Liberia: Ruling the Waves From Virginia
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