The Republic of Liberia in West Africa and a local fisheries company are caught in an escalating dispute possibly worth $6 million over illegal fishing in Liberian waters.
Liberia recently said it would press criminal charges against Dongwon Industries ― Korea’s largest tuna brand ― for fishing with a forged license in its waters, according to both the Liberian government and Greenpeace.
A Dongwon-owned tuna fishing vessel had been caught fishing with the fake documents in 2011 and 2012. Licenses are required when vessels fish in waters that are not covered by bilateral contracts signed at the government level.
Dongwon believes that it was shortchanged by the agency ― headquartered in Liberia ― that it hired to attain the license from the Liberian government.
“All of the process was completed through this agency, and we were led to believe that its tactics were legal and correct,” said Min Byung-goo, senior vice president of Dongwon’s marine business division.
The Korean government and Dongwon also suspect that the agency has schemed with the Liberian government, citing past cases where vessels flagged by EU nations such as Spain went through a similar process over licensing.
“There is some reason to believe that the Liberian government is involved,” said an official from the local Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries.
The Liberian government, on the other hand, rejects the fraud claims.
“The government of Liberia refutes recent allegations made by the Korean company Dongwon Industries in the international media that they are a ‘victim of fraud’ by officials (in Liberia’s Bureau of National Fisheries).”
Dongwon has no evidence of the agreement they had with the local agent, nor of the payment it made to Liberian government accounts for the license fee.
Some close to Dongwon believe there may have been a corrupt bureaucrat who pocketed the fees they paid.
In the meantime, Dongwon has sent a small team of negotiators to Liberia to try and hammer out an agreement.
“That was what Liberia did with other EU vessels, so we hope for a similar outcome, although it seems like the demands they are making on us are more taxing,” said Min of Dongwon.
In previous disputes between Liberia and vessels from Spain and other EU countries, the vessels ended up paying the license fee in full, and some additional funds to compensate for fishing illegally without a permit.
So far, Liberia has said the penalties for illegal fishing would be up to $6 million for Dongwon, but company executives expect the amount to be lowered.
To further prevent such disputes, the Korean government has agreed to step in to contact countries where companies are seeking to fish. These would be areas without a formal bilateral contract at government level.
“We hope to serve as the middleman,” an official from the ministry said.
By Kim Ji-hyun (email@example.com