Hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels have been swarming the coast of Argentina and pillaging the waters of marine life vital to the South American country’s economy and the area’s fragile ecosystem, a new investigation has revealed.
New data released on Wednesday by Oceana, a non-profit that works on ocean conservation, shows that between 2018 and April this year, a Chinese armada of some 400 vessels clocked 69 per cent of 900,000 hours of fishing activity off Argentina.
Taiwanese, South Korean and Spanish boats joined more than 800 foreign vessels fishing within 20 nautical miles of the invisible border between Argentina’s national waters and the high seas, mainly trawling for shortfin squid. By comparison, the Argentine fleet conducted just one per cent of total fishing in the area.
Potential overfishing of squid is a major concern as it is essential to the diet of numerous commercial and recreational species, like tuna and swordfish.
The looming crisis mirrors similar concerns in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands about lasting damage from unsustainable fishing after reports last year of nearly 300 Chinese vessels looking for squid off the Galapagos Marine Reserve.
Oceana also documented more than 6,000 “gap events”, where AIS [automatic identification system) transmissions were not broadcast for more than 24 hours, indicating that vessels were potentially disabling their public tracking devices to mask illegal behaviour in Argentina’s national waters.
The report found the Chinese fleet was responsible for 66 per cent of these incidents.
It gives one example in April 2020 when approximately 100 squid jiggers, mostly Chinese-flagged, were allegedly caught fishing illegally in Argentina’s national waters, each with their public tracking devices apparently turned off.
“Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing threatens the health of the oceans. The vessels that disappear along the edge of the national waters of Argentina could be pillaging its waters illegally,” said Beth Lowell, Oceana’s deputy vice president of US campaigns.
“IUU fishing is wreaking havoc on our oceans, coastal communities, and people who depend on the oceans for their livelihoods.”
Dr Marla Valentine, Oceana’s illegal fishing and transparency campaign manager, said “reckless fishing from China and other distant water fleets” without regard for laws and sustainability made it harder for consumers to make ethical choices.
“One of the big problems that those who eat seafood have to contend with is that there is very poor traceability of what we are eating, so we don’t know if the shrimps or squid that we are consuming was caught legally or sustainably,” she told The Telegraph.
The European Union currently has stronger import laws to enforce full-chain traceability than the US. A study published in March by US International Trade Commission found the US imported an estimated $2.4 billion worth of seafood derived from IUU fishing in 2019.
One of the main obstacles to greater transparency was at-sea transshipment, where catches are transferred to cargo refrigerated cargo vessels. About 56 per cent of the ships that turned off their AIS signals engaged in transshipment within one month.
“Anything they may have caught that might have been illegal could be mixed in with legal catches in the cargo hold of this ship. Transshipment is legal, but it is a really weak link in our seafood supply chain,” said Dr Valentine.
Only a tiny fraction of the 800-plus foreign fishing vessels docked in an Argentine port, thwarting opportunities to monitor their catches.
Meanwhile, tensions between the Argentine Coast Guard and suspected illegal fishing vessels have escalated to violence. Other South American countries like Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Colombia – facing similar suspected illegal fishing in their vicinities have vowed to join forces to tackle it.
China is the world’s largest fishing nation with an estimated 17,000 vessels in its vast distant water fleet, according to the Overseas Development Institute, a UK-based think tank.
China is ranked the worst nation in the world on an international fishing index that tracks illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing worldwide for frequent violations of overfishing, targeting endangered species, false licensing and forced labour.
Last year, the Chinese fishery authorities introduced hard-hitting punishments for overfishing and illegal fishing by the distant water fishing fleet. However, experts say it is too early to determine how this is being enforced.