Frontline World

SPAIN - The Lawless Sea, January 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "The Lawless Sea"

Interactive Atlas

Troubled Waters

The Case of the Prestige

Regulation, the Environment, Labor




Hiding Behind The Flag

Who's in Charge - Read more INTRODUCTION

Eighty percent of the world's goods moves on ships. At any given time, more than 80,000 ships steam across the oceans of the earth, carrying toys, cars, grains, processed foods, coal, oil, clothing and thousands upon thousands of other products whose journey into our shops and our homes we take for granted. Ships are the gears of the global economy. No ships, no global economy.

Yet underneath this vast, international universe of moving parts is often chaos. Shipping is one of the world's least-regulated industries, and it operates on principles that date back to the 18th century. But if a ship gets into trouble at sea today, more is at stake than Spanish bullion or English tea. Cargoes like oil, chemicals, even nuclear waste are transported on the high seas, with the potential to devastate the environment and harm tens of thousands of people if something goes wrong.

Little oversight and poor accountability in the shipping industry have created a maze of legal trapdoors behind which less reputable owners may hide. Substantial regulation is prevented in part by foreign "flagging," a policy that permits ship owners to register their vessels in countries that have far less stringent safety and labor requirements than those of their home country. These ship registries -- known in the trade as open registers and by critics as flags of convenience -- have led to a rupture between the actual authority of a nation-state and its symbol, the flag. The overwhelming majority of ship owners are based in major maritime powers -- Greece, the United States, Norway, Great Britain and Japan -- yet most of their ships are registered under a foreign flag, in countries such as Liberia, Panama, the Bahamas, Malta, Honduras and Trinidad, which offer barely a veneer of national authority over the ships flying their flags.

Offshore front companies further obscure the identity of ship owners, making it difficult and time-consuming to hold owners legally or financially accountable for damage caused by their ships. The legal owners of the Prestige, for example, turned out not to be the Greek family trust to whom profits from the ship's operations were sent, but an offshore company registered in Monrovia, Liberia, called Mare Shipping. Its sole asset is now at the bottom of the Atlantic, 130 miles off the coast of Spain, valueless except to the mollusks clinging to its rusting hull.

In this interactive atlas, trace the international trails of some of the more controversial ships registered under foreign flags. Read about five flagging nations: Bahamas, Belize, Liberia, Panama and Tonga. The examples highlight some of the industry's most pressing problems, from labor conflict and environmental risk to piracy and potential terrorism.

• Introduction
• 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

"Hiding Behind the Flag" was reported by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). Introduction by Mark Schapiro. Reporting and writing by CIR Associate Reporter Kari Lundgren. Editor for CIR is Editorial Director Dan Noyes.

Producer: Angela Morgenstern; Designed by: Susan Harris, Fluent Studios; see full web credits.

back to top