A ban on imports of Cambodian seafood proposed by the European Commission (E.C.) is in direct response to Cambodian-flagged vessels complicit in illegal fishing in international waters, Jean-Francois Cautain, European Union (E.U.) ambassador to Cambodia, said Wednesday.
The E.C. on Tuesday announced that Cambodia was “non-cooperating in fighting illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.” Cambodia, as well as Belize and Guinea, which will also see their fish exports banned from the European market, were warned a year ago that they had to make progress in tackling illegal fishing or be the first nations ever to be sanctioned for their noncompliance with demands to end unregulated fishing.
Mr. Cautain said the issue for Cambodia is foreign-owned vessels flying the Cambodian national flag.
“The main points of concern, which have led to this decision, are the lack of effective registration, control and monitoring systems, and the non-deterrent sanction system that would allow an effective control over the fishing vessels flagged to Cambodia and operating in high seas,” Mr. Cautain said in an email.
Despite the E.C. ban, trade relations between Europe and Cambodia will not be affected, as
the country does not export seafood to the E.U., he said.
The ban from Europe only harms Cambodia’s international reputation, said Nao Thouk, director-general of the Cambodian Fisheries Administration, who added that the country exports some 20,000 tons of seafood to countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, China and Russia.
Mr. Thouk also blamed the E.C. ban on Cambodia’s practice of providing “flags of convenience” to ships from other countries.
“This is in relations to the illegal fishing in the open high sea,” Mr. Thouk said.
“There are no Cambodian boats doing this, but boats with Cambodian flags. But they are not under our control,” he said, confirming that Cambodia does not export seafood to the E.U.
Mr. Thouk also claimed that the government was not responsible for selling the Cambodian flag of convenience to foreign ships, claiming that a South Korean company was responsible for the practice.
Ship owners often choose flags of convenience to avoid paying taxes and having to comply with international maritime regulations.
Mr. Thouk said that he did not know which ministry or governmental body is responsible for the country’s ship registry.
After Honduras and Panama, Cambodia was in 2009 the world’s third biggest supplier of a flag of convenience, with 176 fishing vessels and 24 large, refrigerated factory ships registered to the country, according to the report Lowering the Flag: Ending the use of flags of convenience by pirate fishing vessels, published by the U.K.-based Environmental Justice Foundation.
Cambodia-registered ships had violated international fishing and maritime border laws, and were in the past investigated for the smuggling of drugs and weapons as well as human trafficking, according to the report.
Globally, flag-of-convenience vessels make up the majority of pirate fishing ships, a business estimated to generate some $23 billion annually, and are accused of exploiting workers, contravening national and international laws, plundering fish stocks, operating without licenses to fish, and fishing in protected areas.
“Certain states operate ‘open registries’ that allow foreign vessels to fly their flag for a relatively tiny fee…. [M]any of these countries lack the resources or will to monitor and control vessels flying their flag,” the report adds.
Until 2002, the privately operated, Singapore-based Cambodian Shipping Corp (CSC) managed registration of the Cambodian flag of convenience, but was stripped of the privilege by the government following revelations that a Cambodian-flagged vessel bound for Yemen was carrying North Korean missile technology. The same year, French authorities seized cocaine on another Cambodian-flagged ship.
The CSC operation was linked to Khek Ravy, then-Ministry of Commerce secretary of state, who received a monthly sum of $16,400 from the CSC’s registration of ships under the Cambodian flag. Mr. Ravy’s stipend amounted to a total of almost $1.5 million by the time the government revoked the CSC’s contract, according to documents read out in court in 2010.
The government replaced CRC with a firm called the International Ship Registry of Cambodia (ISROC), based in Busan, South Korea, which resumed ship registration in 2003.
Since then, Cambodian-flagged vessels have again been involved in numerous maritime incidents around the world.
The ISROC did not reply to requests for comment Wednesday, but the company boasts on its website that it offers Cambodian flag registration at cheap rates and with no restrictions.
“With above merit of Cambodia flag, which can offer affluent and convenient choices to ship owners than other flags in the world, ISROC operates Cambodia ship registration system with no restriction on ship owner’s nationality & ship’s tonnage and crews,” the ISROC website states.
The website also states that vessels will lose their right to fly a Cambodian flag if they are implicated in the smuggling of arms, drugs or human trafficking. The website does not make any mention of illegal fishing.
In 2012, when a Cambodian-flagged ship sank off the coast of Turkey, Cambodia’s Minister of Transport Tram Iv Teuk said that his ministry was no longer in charge of the shipping registry, as it had passed to a committee at the Council of Ministers.
Asked Wednesday who is responsible for registering the country’s vessels, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan referred questions to Council of Ministers Secretary of State Takreth Samrech. When contacted, however, Mr. Samrech claimed that he did not know anything about ship registration, or of the activities of the ISROC in Busan.
“Maybe the Ministry of Transportation knows about this, but not me. I don’t know…I am not in charge. That was the wrong information,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)