Uruguay to work with neighbours to protect migratory fish

The government wants to form a regional front to tackle overfishing by foreign fleets on the borders of national waters
<p>The busy port of Montevideo in Uruguay (Image: Alamy)</p>

The busy port of Montevideo in Uruguay (Image: Alamy)

The Southwest Atlantic Ocean attracts fishing fleets from all over the world due to rich marine life that swims beyond national waters. But despite concerns of overfishing, the region lacks the kind of fishing management organisation or governance system present in many other regions of the world. Uruguay, with a new government since last year, is seeking to change this.

Fishing fleets from China, Taiwan, South Korea and Spain concentrate in waters near the outer limit of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. They are in search of squid and other species and will often stop at the Uruguayan port of Montevideo.

Commercial fishing effort in the Southwest Atlantic (2013-2019)

Press play to see how distant-water fleets concentrate along the edges of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay’s EEZs. (Source: Global Fishing Watch)

The number of vessels on both sides of the South American continent has grown steadily over the past two decades, leading to disputes with the authorities. In Ecuador, Chinese vessels were accused of illegal fishing last year. While the government of Argentina captured three vessels illegally fishing in its waters.

This has fuelled the argument for a regional initiative to regulate fishing activity in areas beyond EEZs, which could help to establish catch limits, closed fishing seasons and reserves, and make it possible to keep a proper record of fishing activity and its legality.

As it moves into the second year of President Luis Lacalle Pou’s administration, Uruguay is seeking to advance such an initiative. This fits with the government’s announcement last year of new marine protected areas that would cover 10% of the nation’s waters.

Regional fishing organisations

Jaime Coronel, Uruguay’s national director of aquatic resources, told China Dialogue Ocean that the country has been in talks with Brazil since last year over the creation of a regional fisheries management organisation (RFMO). “It’s essential to have a system of control in the region, just like the ones that exist in other parts of the world,” he argued.

RFMOs exist in most areas of the high seas with large fisheries or complex ecosystems. They facilitate cooperation between governments and help improve the prospects of species under continuous fishing pressure, such as tuna and swordfish. They are responsible for assessing resources, monitoring vessels and adopting conservation measures, among other things. Many have powers to manage resources according to an “ecosystem approach”. There are two RFMOs specifically for tuna covering the Atlantic Ocean. But there is no RFMO for other species overseeing the Southwest Atlantic.

Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), countries have an obligation to cooperate on conserving ocean life on the high seas, and to develop management measures if they are exploiting the same resources as other countries. States are even requested to establish regional fisheries organisations.

This is especially relevant given RFMOs have the potential to protect biodiversity, and countries have been negotiating a landmark global deal known as the BBNJ (biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction) – though the last BBNJ session, in 2020, was delayed by the pandemic.
Coastal states in the Southwest Atlantic have not agreed on any management and governance formula for international waters, nor have they organised to prevent foreign fleets in waters adjacent to national jurisdictions from taking advantage of fish and squid there.

Countries must organise themselves to regulate catches outside national waters.

Coronel said Uruguay’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been in talks with Brazil on creating a Southwest Atlantic RFMO, which in turn raised the idea within Mercosur, the customs union comprising Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. However, Coronel warned that all countries would have to agree if the idea is to move forward.

According to Coronel, at the last meeting of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) Committee on Fisheries, in February, Argentina said it was not willing to negotiate on the RFMO, but would be if the model were different. The country has not yet proposed an alternative governance system for areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Coronel explained that Uruguay will not hold talks with Argentina for another month or so. This is in part to give Argentina the chance to come up with alternatives to the RFMO

An information exchange network

The head of Uruguay’s navy, Rear Admiral José Luis Elizondo, told China Dialogue Ocean that the country is also making progress with a working group in the Regional Operational Cooperation Network of Maritime Authorities of the Americas (ROCRAM).

The objective is to create a digital platform where states can bring together information on all vessels, including those which carry out or support unreported and unregulated fishing.

Elizondo explained that efforts to address this activity are currently only made by individual countries. Once operational, the platform will provide information on maritime traffic, especially those vessels transporting fish, fuel or other cargoes from ship to ship.

The ROCRAM working group will try to raise awareness, look for solutions and see how to influence unreported and unregulated fishing, since “it threatens the food security of our countries,” Elizondo added.

IUU fishing and poor management in the high seas endangers the natural renewal of fish populations and indeed entire species. While declared, legitimate and regulated fishing provides protein and food security to three billion people in the world, according to the UN.

Uruguay’s fishing resources

Forty-five species of commercial value were caught in Uruguay in 2018, according to marine biologist Andrés Milessi, coordinator of the Organisation for the Conservation of Cetaceans (OCC) and the Oceanosanos project, who was drawing on official statistics. In 2019, the main five were sea bass, hake, whiting, rouget and blue hake.

Traditional fishing boats in the harbour of Piriapolis, Uruguay
Traditional fishing boats moored in the harbour of Piriapolis, Uruguay. The country’s fishing volume has fallen more than 50% over the past 40 years. (Image: Alamy)

Most of these are caught with trawlers working alone or in pairs, with longlines or, in the case of more artisanal fisheries, gillnets.

Milessi told China Dialogue Ocean that the main species caught off the coast of Uruguay migrate between there, Brazil and Argentina. There is already a Joint Technical Commission between Argentina and Uruguay that studies and analyses catches and establishes fishing management measures, as well as making recommendations on catch levels. But increased coordination between the Southwest Atlantic countries would help species that migrate between the three countries such as hake, Milessi added.

“We have to fish at levels that allow species to grow, reproduce and maintain healthy populations without reaching the extreme of collapse,” Milessi said. “To do this, countries must organise themselves to regulate catches, usually migratory, outside national waters.”