China on the brink of fishing conflict in South America

Recent incidents in the South Atlantic highlight the need to better protect our oceans

March 2016 will be remembered for shaking up diplomatic relations between China and Argentina. In the space of just 10 days, two Chinese fishing vessels were shot at by Argentine coastguards. While they both managed to escape the South American country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), one of them and its crew could not escape capture on the high seas and the vessel now rests at the bottom of the ocean. It was an exceptional event, and one which caught worldwide media attention.

The fishing vessel which escaped, the Hua Li 8, was recently captured as it crossed Indonesian waters as national authorities acted on an international arrest warrant issued by Interpol in its continuing fight against piracy.

The succession of incidents with the Argentine navy did not escape the attention of the Chinese government, whose embassy in Buenos Aires called for an official investigation into the sinking of the Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010.

These events may seem unusual, but they are all too familiar for those who know the regional and global fishing contexts. All the same, they sent a powerful message to the international community and serve as a reminder of the importance of better coordination in our efforts to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems.

A unique region

The South Atlantic is one of the regions with the most marine biodiversity on the planet. The meeting of the warm current from Brazil, and the cold one from the Falklands/ Malvinas, together with a vast plain of a seabed which plunges steeply at the edge of the continental shelf, combine to allow marine life to prosper in all its forms. The area has an abundance of fish species, marine mammals and birds.

Due to the conflict between Argentina and the UK over the Falklands/ Malvinas islands, attempts by both countries to regulate fishing in the region and expel illegal, unregulated or unregistered (IUU) boats, have largely failed. This has meant the UK opted to open its controlled area to almost any boat that pays an annual tax, without requirements on security, working conditions, environmental protection or the fishing practices carried out.

For Argentina’s part, it is almost impossible to control 100% of the thousands of kilometres of maritime border to prevent the illegal entry of boats into its EEZ. Its attempts to tackle illegal fishing there or in adjoining international waters have been weak or non-existent.

All this creates a perfect cocktail for a flotilla of vessels to take advantage of the lack of control, regional agreements or a multilateral organism to regulate and limit exploitation.

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Empty oceans   

According to the latest data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 90% of the fishing grounds in the world are over-exploited, at the limit of their exploitation or collapsed.

Few regions in the world can escape this reality. The South Atlantic fishing ground had collapsed by end of the 1990s, following the massive and uncontrolled entry of Spanish vessels into its waters, authorised by Argentina’s then government.  Blatantly over-exploited, it remains only to work out whether the area is currently still included in the most sombre section of the statistic.

In the last few decades, China’s fishing fleets have sought new fishing grounds, due to notorious shortages in its jurisdictional waters, the rise in internal consumption and the reluctance of Asian neighbours to enter into fishing agreements.

Among the 500 or so foreign boats that operate in the South Atlantic, the most visible flag carried is that of China, which comprises 45% of the total. Taiwan follows with 20%, South Korea with 17% and Spain with 13% (some fishing under the Falklands flag).

One reason these floating cities are able to continue fishing in these waters for years on end is that they receive logistical support from Port Montevideo and Port Argentina in the Falklands/ Malvinas. Slave labour and the lack of environmental or security regulations notwithstanding, which can impact operating costs, it would otherwise be too expensive to remain in the region.

A Chinese port in Uruguay

China is a major investor in Argentina, but until now has not invested considerably in neighbouring Uruguay.

The vast wealth of fishing boats and reefers ships (which provide replenishment and cold storage) in the port of Montevideo has led Chinese company ShanDong BaoMa Grupo de Pesquería S.A to propose a US$200 million port investment in Uruguay, including workshops and refrigerated storehouses.

By sealing the deal to build the port, BoaMa group would virtually guarantee China a piece of sovereign territory in the South Atlantic. Such was the case with a Finnish paper mill, installed on the eastern banks of the Río Uruguay and which includes a ‘Zona Franca‘, allowing it to dispatch boats without the interference of the Uruguayan state.

China would literally have some sovereignty over the Río de la Plata, an attractive logistical and commercial advantage for migratory fishing floats.

Inestimable environmental impacts

IUU fleets mainly seek squid (Illex argentinus), followed by hake (Merluccius gayi and Macruronus), whiting, Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides), Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) and Sao Paulo squid (Loligo sanpaulensis).

Squid is one of the principal sources of food for hake, Argentina’s other main commercial fish. It also feeds species of dolphins, whales and birds, such as penguins.

During its migratory cycle, squid enters the EEZ’s of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, the zone that encircles Falklands/ Malvinas and international waters.

Despite the absence of scientific studies on the impacts of over-fishing on the ecosystem, sharp declines in the penguin and sea lion populations have been observed with the former’s historic highs depleted by 80%.

It is not known exactly how much fish stock there is, although estimates place the amount of squid caught by foreign fleets annually at 600 000 tonnes, worth US$600 million based on the 2015 price of US$1000 per tonne. Little is known about other species and absolutely nothing about accidental catches. There are no rules about the size or age of species caught, which has a huge impact on its ability to replenish its population.

In addition to the impacts of over-exploitation, accidental and discarded catches there are other serious environmental impacts such as pollution of the sea; the discharge of oils, fuels, toxic substances and rubbish which are carried out with impunity, and with no knowledge of the extent of the harm caused.

Reduction and control

In order to avoid ecosystem collapse in the South Atlantic, it is necessary to reduce fishing activities and exercise controls over all boats operating in the region.

All boats should comply with labour regulations, as required by the International Maritime Organization, and have onboard observers appointed multilaterally by regional neighbours. Such measures are necessary as an initial precaution. Disposing of waste on the high seas must be prohibited.

Port authorities should be more transparent and information on catches and other incidents should be publicly available. At the same time, no boats with a record of illegal activities should be authorised to fish in the region, either in EEZs or surrounding international waters. The satellite system of identification for every boat should be obligatory and permanent.

According satellite data analysis, research on vessels and companies, and incidents that have occurred in the region, complying with these requirements would reduce the size of the fishing fleet by 20%. A record of illegality alone would keep more than 400 vessels operating in the region out of operation.

States and companies who want to fish in the region should respect sustainability, the health of the ecosystem, the dignity of workers, local economies and security of navigation.

The recent wave of fishing incidents involving boats flying Chinese flags in overseas waters should prompt the world’s largest fishing fleet to rethink its actions.

Failing to change course would lead to more incidents, perhaps with even more serious consequences than those which have occurred recently.

The oceans are not infinite, we’ve known that for centuries. Nor are the species which live in it. Society knows this and states must protect them ever more firmly.