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
Intro Belize Bahamas Panama Tonga Liberia

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."


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.


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.


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.

• 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

back to top