Argentina toughens stance on illegal fishing

Chinese boat sunk off Argentina highlights extent of illicit fishing and collusion with authorities

Argentine coastguards sunk a Chinese vessel fishing illegally in its waters on Monday, straining diplomatic relations and indicating a tougher stance on a practice which corrupt officials have long turned a blind eye to.

Chinese trawler “Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010” encroached on Argentina waters before attempting to force a collision with coastguards and retreating into international waters, local media reported.  The coastguard tried to make radio contact with the vessel in English and Spanish before firing warning shots, with a negative response from the trawler. The naval crew were then ordered to shoot at it directly.

The Chinese embassy in Buenos Aires called the incident “serious” and demanded that Argentina launch an immediate investigation in a statement released on Tuesday. The captain of the vessel and three members of the 32-strong crew, all of whom were rescued, were taken by the Argentine navy for questioning in the town of Rawson in Chubut province, southern Argentina.

“This began as an infraction and ended up being a crime,” federal judge Hugo Sastre was reported as saying.

Chinese trawlers fish legally and illegally all over the world and are lured to the south Atlantic in large part because of the lucrative squid trade. China’s recorded imports alone are estimated to be worth US$500 million annually. Squid forms an important part of the local food chain, providing food for whales, larger fish, penguins, and other carnivores.

This latest episode is a big test of how new president Mauricio Macri handles relations with China, which enjoyed preferential treatment under his predecessor Cristina Kirchner through the non-competitive award of big energy and infrastructure contracts.

Diego Guelar, Argentina’s new ambassador to Beijing recently told congress it would be “crazy” to preside over a rupture in the relationship with China. “It is our main banker, our main investor and our main market,” he said.

Whilst elite-level relations have become closer, clandestine cooperation between corrupt Argentine officials and Chinese fisherman has been active for years. Officers within the Argentine coastguard have long tolerated and even colluded in illegal fishing activities by warning Chinese fisherman of approaching coastguard patrols, journalist Roberto Maturana told chinadialogue.

Corruption, collusion commonplace

Milko Schvartzman, an Argentine marine conservationist called the sinking of the Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010 “extraordinary” but added that it is illustrative of a widespread problem that often goes unreported. Chinese vessels were detained by Argentine authorities numerous times over the past decade but a naval patrol has not sunk a foreign boat for 15 years.

According to Argentine daily Clarín, Monday’s was the second incident involving Chinese boats in the space of a few days. Yet for all these examples, many more go unpunished.

A study by the Fisheries Center at the University of British Colombia, found that Chinese distant-water fishing fleets operate unrestricted in the waters of over 90 countries and often do not declare catch statistics. For a small bribe, ships are often permitted to fish under host country flags and fishermen commit other violations such as repainting the hull to give it the appearance of a locally registered boat.

Biting the hand?

Argentina last year scaled up its land and sea defences with the purchase of Chinese military technology as part of a raft of deals signed between former president Kirchner and counterpart Xi Jinping. In addition to fighter jets and personnel carriers, Argentina agreed to buy five offshore patrol vessels.

The vessels, called “Malvinas class” after the Latin American name for the disputed Falklands islands, will be added to the naval coastguard fleet.

In the first diplomatic mission under the Macri administration, Guelar will travel to Beijing this week, where he will no doubt face questions over the Lu Yuan Yan Lu incident.

“I hope to complete my mission well and to strengthen ties with the great nation of China, which has proven itself to be a great friend and partner,” Guelar tweeted before pertinently signing off a follow-up tweet by wishing his followers “peace and prosperity”.

Additional reporting by Ardash Vartparonian