The Role of “Port Agents” in Tuna Fishing in the Pacific / by Francisco Blaha

Port agents have a busy life in some ports in the Pacific. They are the nexus in between the land and most of the necessities of the fishing vessel and the fish, from engine parts to certificates for the fish, from helicopter fuel to the observer accommodation while waiting for the vessel. But critically in my work, they are the ones that let us know the vessel is coming to port.

 The agents' agent bringing me back from a transhipment.

The agents' agent bringing me back from a transhipment.

And I don't like that, I think the vessel should announce itself via e-reporting tool. This will give us key advantages, it would oblige the vessels to use the e-reporting tools they prefer of use (see the ones we have here in the Pacific) otherwise they cannot announce their arrival notification along the expectation of Ports State Measures, and cannot unload.

If they request entry from the App, we in port get to know quite a lot for the logsheet in advance… from volumes, to positions, to days of unusual fishing and this allows to target intelligence work with other tools such as VMS, e-observer if they have it and so on.

Anyway, that "advance notice for port entry" is in the pipeline. But for now, we depend on the agents, and as said they are a mysterious bunch.

Some are independent, other relate to the traders (such as FCF), vessel operators, business conglomerates on shore, etc… most are foreigners and not Pacific Islanders but this is not the rule.

In some cases, they are actually quite close and familiar to the fisheries administrators, since they interact on constant basis, yet they are opaque in their accessibility, even if they have fundamental information for the authorities and fisheries economists

I have never been aware of any past or future study in the Pacific that has deals with them as a unique and vital player in the industry, yet one we know very little about.

Hence I was quite interested to read this article by Andre Standing for the Coalition for fair fisheries Arrangements, titled “One Of The Greatest Barriers To Sustainable Fisheries? The Role Of Fishing Agents In Africa”, is good reading and I recommend you go for the original.

I will quote some of the parts I found most interesting and that I would love to compare to what’s happening here in the Pacific.

Who and what is a ‘fishing agent’
Today fishing agents provide several services, from organising a license, arranging vessel inspections, recruiting crews, providing food and water supplies to vessels in port, arranging refueling, receiving and passing on information from the vessel to the authorities, even the removal of rubbish from the vessel when visiting port. Some fishing agents companies provide all these services, and some are shipping agents providing these services to a range of vessels including fishing vessels. But it seems more common in Africa for fishing vessel operators to use different agents for different services, and there are dedicated agents that specialise in the procurement of fishing licenses and fisheries related services. Agents that operate as the first port of call for new fishing licenses may then sub-contract other services to other agents. Even under bi-lateral access agreements, such as with the EU, individual operators will pay for a local agent to be an official contact person for their license, which may include holding a copy of their license on their behalf.
The EU operators report paying about 1500 Euros each a year to agents for this service (above and beyond the fees for the actual license), although the fees can be considerably more - apparently, there are cases of individual vessels owners being asked to pay over 10,000 Euros a year for this.  There is no doubt that agent fees are a substantial cost for the industry, and that being a successful agent is a lucrative business.
Fishing agents are usually local citizens, although there are examples of foreigners working as agents as well. A few years ago, the Spanish consul in Guinea-Bissau was known to be the business contact for Spanish fishing vessels there, facilitating the purchase licenses and offering diplomatic services. In some countries, such as the Seychelles, agents are certified and receive official authority to work. But there are several countries where the legal status of agents is difficult to identify. Indeed, in many countries, the sector seems to exist in a relatively informal way. It is reported that Dutch fishing vessels working in Mauritania, for example, have been using the same local agent for years, although there is no formal contract between them. Other industry representatives confirm that working with agents without contracts has been quite common, which makes their responsibilities somewhat vague.
The industry’s perspective
It is possible that fishing vessel owners are totally unaware that often money paid to agents is making its way to the private bank accounts of government officials. But it is not very likely. Indeed, a source with close contacts to the European tuna fishing fleets said that the fishing industry had been warned before about the legal implications of allowing this situation to happen - in some countries vessel operators have been paying millions of Euros to agents who they knew were giving kickbacks to government officials for license payments. This made them complicit in bribery, which would put them in breach of their home country’s laws on payments of bribes in a foreign country. 
An expanding sphere of influence?
There are other roles of fishing agents where potential abuse of power could be found. One area of concern relates to the role of fishing agents in recruiting national citizens for crews on board foreign vessels. All vessels that need to pick up local crew will tend to use an agent for this, although it might not be the same one used for gaining licenses. But there are also concerns that this is a role that provides opportunities for kickbacks, giving jobs as favours to people who are not well trained, as well as abuses in labour contracts. The role of these agents in labour disputes is something worth more research, as they may well be important players in the exploitation of crews.  It is an area where the tuna industry has made improvements, and they now vet all contracts provided by agents for local crews.  But the same is apparently not the case for demersal trawlers in many countries. 
Agents are also used in some countries to collect and distribute by-catch, where this is obligated to be landed by fishing vessels. But the fees paid for this, and how agents decide who gets what and for how much, is very hard to find any information on. But it is a powerful position and one that requires adequate accountability and transparency, which doesn't seem to be the case. 
What can be done?
Where agents are handling fees for public services, the cost of these fees should be published by national authorities - making it that much more difficult for part of these fees to be stolen by agents and officials. A clear example is a fee for handling licenses. Another is the fee structure for vessel inspections, including per diem rates for inspectors. 
Another idea is that there should also be a public registry of agents. The fact that in some countries, vessel operators are forced to turn to local fishing authorities to recommend agents, may facilitate some of the corrupt relations between these authorities and agents.
Other ideas for reforming this situation lies with changes to national fishing authorities. Those that see the root cause of the problem being the extremely low wages paid to fisheries officials, as well as cumbersome bureaucracies, want to see fisheries authorities privatised, or made into parastatal organisations, so more competitive salaries, as well as easier hiring and firing of staff, can be achieved. 
Yet a more fundamental issue is whether some of the services provided by agents are in fact needed?  The role of agents has become so valuable partly because of the deficiencies of national fishing authorities. But this state of affairs appears to be maintained deliberately to allow for abuse of powers. 
It is not clear why vessel operators have to pay an agent to process and collect a fishing license. Surely, the national licensing authority should be able to provide an on-line, transparent service that would do away with the need for this altogether. For example, in the case of EU fishing agreements, rather than mandate vessel owners to use a local agent for services including licensing, the EU could insist that the competent authorities provide this service as part of the agreement.
The same could be said about other functions of agents - is it necessary for agents to make the arrangements for government inspectors? Should the national authorities be able to organise and communicate with vessel owners themselves? Why is it that agents are used to collect data from fishing vessels? If the argument for the use of agents is based on the view that working with opaque and bureaucratic governments is too complicated and time-consuming for the industry, the answer lies in improving government services, not in establishing a lucrative business sector for well-connected, but ultimately unaccountable intermediaries

I think the situation in the Pacific is different, but I’m not aware of any study by anyone with port agents for fishing vessels in the Pacific. So if any NGO, foundation or RFO is keen to do some research into this key yet largely unregulated and marginal group that runs in parallel to fishing, let me know, I’ll be keen to tackle it.