DOUALA, Cameroon - Off the coast of West Africa, the Trondheim is a familiar sight: a soccer field-sized ship, plying the waters from Nigeria to Mauritania as it pulls in tons of mackerel and sardines - and flying the red, yellow and green flag of Cameroon.
But aside from the flag, there is almost nothing about the Trondheim that is Cameroonian.
Once, it operated under the name of the King Fisher and sailed under the flag of the Caribbean nation St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Then it switched to Georgia, the former Soviet republic. It was only in 2019 that it began flying the banner of Cameroon.
The Trondheim is one of several vessels reflagged under Cameroon's growing fishing fleet that have changed names and been accused of illicit activities at sea. Currently, an investigation by The Associated Press found, 14 of these vessels are owned or managed by companies based in European Union member states: Belgium, Malta, Latvia and Cyprus.
The AP examined over 80 ship profiles on MarineTraffic, a maritime analytics provider, and matched them with company records through IHS Maritime & Trade and the International Maritime Organization or IMO.
"They're interested in the flag. They're not interested in Cameroon," said Beatrice Gorez, coordinator for the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Arrangements, a group of organizations highlighting the impacts of EU-African fisheries arrangements that identified the recent connection between companies in EU member states and the Cameroon fleet.
Each of the vessels changed flags to Cameroon between 2019 and 2021, though they had no obvious link to the country and did not fish in its waters. The Trondheim and at least five others have a history of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, according to a report by the environmental group Greenpeace. Both the vessels and their owners conceal what they catch, where it goes and who is financially benefiting from it, maritime and company records show.
In recent years, Cameroon has emerged as one of several go-to countries for the widely criticized "flags of convenience" system, under which companies can - for a fee - register their ships in a foreign country even though there is no link between the vessel and the nation whose flag it flies.
FILE - Local Cameroonian fishermen prepare fishing nets on their boats along the shores of Limbe beach, Cameroon, Apr. 12, 2022.
The ships are supposed to abide by that nation's fishing agreements with other countries. But experts say weak oversight and enforcement of fishing fleets by countries with open registries like Cameroon offer shipping companies a veil of secrecy that allows them to mask their operations.
That secrecy, the experts say, also undermines global attempts to sustainably manage fisheries and threatens the livelihoods of millions of people in regions like West Africa. Cameroonian officials say all the ships that fly its flag are legally registered and abide by all of its laws. But regulators in Europe recently warned the country that its inability to provide oversight of its fishing fleet could lead to a ban on fish from the country.
FILE - Fishmongers from Limbe, Cameroon, and neighboring communities wait at the shore for fishing boats to arrive with their catch at the shore on Limbe, Apr. 12, 2022.
Cameroon's flagged fishing fleet is minuscule compared to countries such as Liberia, Panama or the Marshall Islands. But the rapid adoption of the country's flag by some shipping companies accused of illegal fishing is raising alarm.
"This is a big issue," said Aristide Takoukam, a biologist and founder of the African Marine Mammal Conservation Organization, a non-profit based in Cameroon that monitors illegal fishing. "I don't think Cameroon is able to monitor these vessels that are flying Cameroon flags outside its waters."
A history of lax oversight
Cameroon has long been criticized for lax oversight of its fishing fleet. A study published last year in the journal African Security documented deep-rooted corruption in the ministries that oversee the fishing industry. In that same year, the European Commission issued a "yellow card" to the country, warning it to step up its actions against illegal fishing.
The commission identified a series of shortcomings, including that the country had registered several fishing vessels - some of them accused of illegal fishing - under its flag in the past few years, raising concerns about the nation's ability to control and monitor the activities of its fleet.
If Cameroon does not comply after its initial warning, the commission can issue a "red card," effectively listing them as a non-cooperating country. And it can ban their fish products from entering EU markets.
FILE - Bonga fish, commonly found in West Africa and an important source of protein for artisanal fishing communities, are held in a basket in Limbe, Cameroon, Apr. 12, 2022.
The commission's report named a dozen fishing vessels registered between 2019 and 2020 whose names were not provided to them by Cameroonian authorities. At least eight of the 12 identified vessels are managed or owned by European companies. The AP found six more vessels not included in the EU report.
The European Commission did not respond to the AP's requests for comment.
Data from two maritime intelligence companies, Windward and Lloyd's List Intelligence, reveals an accelerated growth in the number of vessels that sail under the Cameroonian flag in the past four years, from 14 vessels in 2018 to more than 129 in 2022. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, Cameroon's fishing capacity is now nine times larger than it was before 2018.
While the number of flagged ships has grown, the resources to monitor them have not kept pace, a review of budget documents show. The documents show that the budget for the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries' control and supervision of fisheries declined 32% from 2019 to last year.
While countries have a right to allow vessels to adopt their nationality and fly their flag, Article 91 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea requires a "genuine link" to be established between a vessel and its flag state.
Despite this, foreign vessels in countries with open registries often have little to no relationship with their flag states. The responsibility falls on the flagged country to control operations of the vessels in their fleet, including any illegal activity caused in other nations' waters or on the high seas.
"The very point of flags of convenience is that it's easy, it's cheap, you can do it quickly, and they are not necessarily looking at your history of compliance," said Julien Daudu, senior campaigner at the Environmental Justice Foundation, a British NGO focusing on environmental and human rights issues.
Paul Nkesi, a representative of the agency that oversees fisheries, the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries, says that although the government recognizes the need to step up its surveillance of industrial trawlers, all vessels are registered lawfully in Cameroon.
All of the 14 EU-linked vessels registered to Cameroon are massive trawler ships at least 100 meters long; none operate in Cameroonian waters. Tracking data show the ships journeying between ports in Mauritania, Angola, South Africa, and Namibia.
Still, for the local fishermen who already compete with the Chinese-owned vessels in their waters, the pressure of a growing fleet is creating concerns that Cameroon will be completely overpowered by foreign-owned vessels.
"Their business is only fishing; they can fish more than 1,000 local boats. If those bigger [international] vessels enter here, we'll be really affected," said Simeon Oviri, a local fisherman in Youpwe, a coastal area near Douala, Cameroon's largest city.
Maurice Beseng, a research associate at the University of Sheffield's Institute for Sustainable Development and visiting fellow in maritime security at Coventry University, said ships operating the flags of convenience appear to be using the system to circumvent the limits on fishing imposed by the European Union.
Differing sets of rules
The EU has fishing agreements with numerous countries, and EU-flagged vessels are subject to stricter fishing restrictions around the world, including in West Africa. But ships flagged to other countries outside the union are not subject to the same fishing limits.
For example, data from Global Fishing Watch, which uses satellite data and machine learning to monitor activity at sea, shows most of the EU-affiliated, Cameroonian-flagged trawlers appear to be fishing in Mauritania, a country that has one of the most robust fishing agreements with the EU.
Under this agreement, trawlers fishing with an EU flag have a total fishing capacity of 225,000 tons for a maximum of 19 vessels. Once that quota is met, all fishing activity has to stop.
But foreign vessels not under any agreement can fish in Mauritania under a free license. For the Cameroon-flagged trawlers, this means they can go above the EU limit without having to land their catches in Mauritania.
The same goes for Gambia, where industrial fishing vessels flagged to Cameroon may fish for any species outside the 7-mile nautical limit. However, if the vessel is flagged to an EU member state, the vessel can only fish for tuna and hake, according to current sustainable fisheries partnership agreements between the small West African country and the EU.
"They are able to use that as a loophole to go beyond the agreements," said Charles Kilgour, director of fisheries analysis for Global Fishing Watch.
The trawler vessels catch small fish species, including horse mackerel, sardinella and anchovy, which recent stock assessments have shown are overfished along the Atlantic coast of West Africa.
These species are a lucrative and vital food source across the region, with an estimated 6.7 million people dependent directly on them. Sardinella in particular are locally consumed in the region as an affordable source of protein and nutrients. Currently, the Food and Agriculture Organization lists most of the targeted species as either fully exploited or overexploited.
Although it's unclear where the fish goes after being unloaded in ports, Beseng notes that the fish targeted by these vessels commonly enter EU markets to be used as fish meal and fish oil.
"Their impact is huge. These are species that the local population depend on,' Beseng said. "The increase in catch has increased food security challenges for coastal communities."
While environmental and maritime security experts applauded the EU for issuing the yellow card to Cameroon for the lax oversight of its fishing fleet, they say not enough is being done to target the EU-based companies that are the culprits.
"If you have European companies that are working under this flag,' Daudu said, "you should also demonstrate exemplary behavior by going after your own nationals."
But just finding the trail can be a daunting - and sometimes insurmountable - challenge. "It's really like an ink bottle. You can get so far, and then at some point it becomes completely opaque," Gorez said. "It makes it really difficult to find information on who owns these vessels."
The AP tracked the 14 vessels ultimately to four active companies: Ocean Whale Co. Ltd in Malta, INOK NV in Belgium, Sundborn Management Ltd in Cyprus and Baltreids SIA in Latvia.
Ocean Whale operates several former Soviet trawlers, including a ship formerly known as the Coral that has changed the flag under which it operates seven times since 2005. Recently, it switched to the Cameroon flag after two months under the Russian flag.
Other ships in the company's fleet were involved in a 2010-12 fishing license scandal in Senegal. Under an agreement that was neither allowed by law nor publicly disclosed, the fisheries ministry granted several of its vessels licenses to catch small fish that were in danger of being overfished. The company and the minister denied wrongdoing.
The company did not respond to the AP's requests for comment.
On its website, the Ocean Whale Co. said it catches fish in Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Namibia, and that "the company is only engaged in legal fishing activities under the licenses issued by the coastal States and strictly adheres to all applicable environmental regulations."
Another group of ships registered to EU companies and recently flagged to Cameroon were also named in the Senegalese fishing scandal. Data from the IMO, the Maritime & Trade database and the Russian maritime register of shipping identifies the fleet's owners as various companies in Cyprus and Belgium, with each ultimately managed by Sundborn Management Ltd, a company registered in Cyprus and INOK NV, a company registered in Belgium.
Both INOK and Sundborn Management offer vessel registration services. Among them: choosing a "flag of convenience and a ship register for a vessel," in Malta, Cyprus, Panama, Belize and other countries.
Neither company responded to requests for comments from the AP.
Belgium's Department of Agriculture and Fisheries said it has been contacted by the European Commission about vessels managed by INOK that have reflagged to Cameroon between 2019 and 2020 but said it couldn't comment on ongoing investigations.
Baltreids Ltd, a Latvian fishing company established in 1998, manages five Cameroon-flagged vessels. The company structure includes two other holdings listed as official owners of the vessels in 2021, Limmat Inter SA, based in the Seychelles, and Oceanic Fisheries NB Ltd, based in Canada.
Baltreids has been accused of a number of suspicious activities, including insurance fraud and illegal fishing in the Atlantic Ocean. A 2020 Canadian Broadcasting Corp. investigation found that Oceanic Fisheries N.B., was flagged by global banks for more than $31 million in suspicious money transfers, according to documents shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other news organizations as part of the FinCEN Files.
When trying to track down a physical presence of the company in Canada, the CBC hit a dead end.
The Latvian IUU Single Liaison Office, the team that works with the EU Commission to regulate IUU fishing in Latvia, told the AP that the Marshal Vasilevskiy was excluded from the Latvian Ship Register in November 2019, when the ship reflagged to Cameroon, and the Kaptian Rusak was never registered under the Latvian flag. Instead, the vessel is listed as owned by Fishing Company SA, a company based in the British Virgin Islands.
IMO data lists ownership of the five Cameroon-flagged vessels owned by either Baltreids Ltd, Limmat Inter SA or Oceanic Fisheries NB Ltd, effective between 2019 and 2021. The New Brunswick corporate register indicates that Oceanic Fisheries N.B. has been inactive since October 2021.
Baltreids denied ever having links to Oceanic Fisheries N.B. or to engaging in any illegal fishing or money laundering to the CBC. In response to the AP, the company said it presently owns two vessels registered in Latvia.
Upping the accountability
According to Gorez, the timing of the ships' reflagging to Cameroon in recent years seem to correspond with the 2017 adoption of the Sustainable Management of External Fishing Fleets , a regulation adopted by the European Parliament aimed to monitor EU vessels that operate outside EU waters.
FILE - Fishmongers sit next to boats as they prepare freshly caught fish to be smoked on Limbe beach, Cameroon, Apr. 12, 2022.
The regulation requires fishing vessels to provide information regarding their operations' sustainability and legality before their EU member state can issue them an authorization to fish in the waters of third countries.
"This regulation is really trying to catch these guys, but as soon as it becomes too complicated, then the easy way out is to change the flag," Gorez said. "It's like when you try to catch soap with your hands. It slips and goes somewhere else."
Since 2010, the EU has incorporated other provisions to make its nationals more accountable for fisheries operations, regardless of country or vessel flags - most notably by penalizing EU nationals who engage in or support illegal or unregulated fishing anywhere in the world, under any flag.
But it's up to the member states to address the issue. Gorez says the states involved in this matter - Latvia, Malta, Belgium and Cyprus - have so far shown little interest.
"We can see the duplicity of the EU in terms of their effort to fight IUU fishing. They've come up with good regulations, but when you go deep into how this is implemented in practice, you see that there are a lot of loopholes," Beseng said.
Part of the SMEFF regulation is to maintain a database including information on the beneficial owners of operations by vessels flagged in an EU member state. As of now, the information remains confidential.
"How can you expect an official in a remote country that sees a vessel coming to be able to easily retrace the whole history of the vessel by himself if the former flag state does not put that information online?" said Daudu. "It would cost a lot of time. It would take a lot of verification. Sometimes it's so well concealed that you can't even find information."
This story was supported by funding from the Walton Family Foundation and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The AP is solely responsible for all content.