GENEVA - The pillaging of threatened fish stocks, human rights abuse and global pirate fishing operations worth more than a billion dollars are documented in a report sponsored by the Australian Government, the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) and World Wildlife Fund. The report, The Changing Nature of High Seas Fishing: How Flags of Convenience provide cover for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing reveals the link between illegal fishing operations in the world's oceans and countries that offer cheap registration services, or flags of convenience (FOC), to fishing vessels. The FOC system provides a perfect cover for IUU fishing, which is estimated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to account for 30 percent of total catches in some important fisheries. The report's recommendations are highly relevant to the deliberations of the international community at the 60th United Nations General Assembly meeting. The meeting will consider a sustainable fisheries resolution dealing with IUU fishing and FOCs - this is an opportunity for countries to deal with these difficult issues. In addition to threatening the world's fisheries, bycatch - the incidental capture of non-targeted species - from pirate fishing operations is a serious threat to sea turtles, albatross, sharks and a range of other species, according to the report. The IUU fishing business is worth around US$1.2 billion, yet it costs only a few hundred dollars to buy a flag of convenience. Approximately 15 percent of the world's large-scale fishing fleet is either flying flags of convenience or the identity of the flag is unknown. "IUU fishing continues to plague the high seas in the Southern Ocean," said Senator Ian Macdonald, Australia's minister for fisheries, forestry and conservation. "While responsible nations bear the costs of sustainable management and costly enforcement, FOC countries and illegal fishermen reap the benefits and blatantly undermine the international rules designed to ensure conservation and management of high seas resources." The report also highlights human rights abuses including forced labor and the abandonment of crews in foreign ports, as well as suspicious incidents such as the recent fire aboard the Simiez in the Uruguayan port of Montevideo, in which 11 Chinese crew members died. Belize, Honduras, Panama and St Vincent and the Grenadines top the list of FOC countries with the largest number of large-scale fishing vessels registered to fly their flag. "We urgently need an end to the corrupt system that allows fishing vessels to buy flags of convenience and operate illegally and without regulation on the high seas," said Dr. Claude Martin, director general of WWF. "Flags of convenience countries, some of them landlocked, register fishing vessels in exchange for a small fee, while often turning a blind eye to illegal activities and exercising little or no control over how these ships operate." General secretary of the ITF, David Cockroft, said that a clear violation of human rights was taking place on IUU vessels. He said abuse of crews and appalling safety standards were exacerbated by the sometimes harsh and dangerous weather conditions faced by fishing vessels. "Not only is FOC fishing a threat to fisheries and the marine environment, but there is a deadly human cost," said David Cockroft. "In many cases IUU vessels operate with an unprotected workforce who can be beaten, starved, and worked without pay - all out of sight in one of the world's most dangerous industries." Data from Lloyd's list, the shipping insurer, shows that EU nations top the list of countries of residence of the owners or operators of fishing vessels operating under flags of convenience, with Spain/Canary Islands comprising approximately one half of the EU total. Australian Senator Macdonald said Australia will now work to ensure all nations realise the seriousness of the problem and he will seek to have the issue addressed at the next meeting of the High Seas Taskforce which is due to be held in Paris, in March 2006. He will also work through other international fora to gain support of like minded nations to push for change. Known in the United States as World Wildlife Fund and recognized worldwide by its panda logo, WWF leads international efforts to protect endangered species and their habitats and to conserve the diversity of life on Earth. Now in its fifth decade, WWF, the global conservation organization, works in more than 100 countries around the world. For more information on World Wildlife Fund, visit www.worldwildlife.org.