The last chase took place one year ago: a coast guard of the Argentine Coast Guard chases a Chinese ship that was fishing illegally at the level of the San Jorge Gulf. The ship managed to escape but had to pay a fine. One month before that, a Spanish ship did the same but was arrested and had to pay a 7,5 million dollar fine.
What happened last year with those two vessels was an exception. Since most of the 400 foreign ships that fish without any type of control do it further than the 200 miles level, some 321 kilometers from Comodoro Rivadavia, where Argentina cannot do anything since on that region the sea is not Argentine. In this article, we tell you the way that fleet works, to which countries it belongs, which species it sweeps over, how all this affects national production, where does that fleet unload the catch, and how many seamen died during a cruel practice that worries U.N.
On January 16, the conservationist Milko Schvartzman counted at least 300 fishing vessels between parallel 42 and 46, across the coasts of Chubut, but beyond mile 200, where waters are international. He did not need to overfly the area. He simply entered a platform where most of the vessels are located in real time with the aid of satellites.
“They are pirate ships because nobody controls what or how they fish. They hide behind mile 200, where international Laws do not regulate the exploitation of fishing resources”, says Milko, who leads the project Oceanosanos, whose headquarters is in Montevideo and that is financed by Leonardo Di Caprio’s Foundation.
There is no need to simply believing in him. We rather look at this satellite shot and observe how ships pile in across Chubut, behind the red line that signals the end of Mar Argentino, up to where the Coast Guard has the authority of monitoring that everybody fishes with due permission.
Squids are razed
Most of the ships are Chinese, around 40% of them. The rest are from South Korea, Taiwan, and Spain. Almost half of them look for squid.
“They fish between 200 thousand and 1 million tons every year. Mostly, they catch squid, but also hake, Patagonian Toothfish and pollack”, details Eduardo Pucci, manager of the Organization for the Protection of the Natural Resources of the SouthWest Atlantic (OPRAS in Spanish), a local NGO (non-governmental organization) that has the support of the national fishing industry.
In the opinion of Oceanosanos, that “pirate” fishing turns over at least U$S800 million a year. In the opinion of OPRAS, that amount is never less than U$S3,000 million, U$S1,000 more million than all fishing exports of Argentina.
Devastating a naturally rich area
Satellite images are too expressive. All ships in the same area. And this has an explanation. That area, that is in part known as the Blue Hole, is very special and rich in resources.
“The special thing is that the continental shelf goes a little bit beyond mile 200. The drop starts some miles further out at sea. Close to this area, between the shelf and the drop, there is a huge migration of squid. And ships take advantage of the benefit that all this takes place out of the exclusive Argentine economic area”, explains the marine biologist Claudio Campagna, manager of the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonic Sea, made up of 16 NGOs, among them Fundación Vida Silvestre, Aves Argentinas, and FARN.
The damage to the environment and to marine biodiversity are hard to measure since there are no records of what is fished. “What we do can say is that damage exists, absolutely. This is damage to the abundance of species and on diversity”, states Campagna.
Milko, from Oceanosanos, adds that the squid is at the center of the marine food chain. “If one attacks the species from which most of the other fish depend, one attacks the whole ecosystem”.
In the opinion of Javier García Espil, national manager of Environmental Management of Water and Aquatic Ecosystems, any nonregulated business has an impact. “We work in responsible fishing practices within Mar Argentino, so as to avoid, for instance, accidental fishing. We also study the biomass and how the population of fishes changes so as to avoid exhausting the fish stock. That is why catch quotas are given”, specifies Espil.
All that is what does not happen beyond mile 201. Many ships fish with trawling nets and they either kill albatrosses accidentally or catch fish that they toss away afterward because they have no commercial value.
“Everything that takes place in these international waters has an impact on Mar Argentino since species are migrants, they go from one place to the other, such as the whales, the killer whales, the elephant seals, the sharks, the rays and the squids”, underlines García Espil.
That is why Pucci, from OPRAS, talks about an economic loss of around U$S 500 million for the fleet of 600 Argentine fishing vessels.
State subsidies for ships that add up to 53 deaths
For the business to be profitable, the fleet of foreign fishing vessels resorts to many practices that at an international level the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) condemn.
Many of the ships that fish in the open sea, far away from their ports of origin, manage to be profitable for the subsidies that they receive from their governments. That is the conclusion drawn by researchers of the National Geographic Society, the University of California in Santa Bárbara, Global Fishing Watch, the Sea Around Us project, the University of British Columbia and the University of Western Australia, that have studied fishing in the open sea as a group.
“To all this, we have to add slave work. Each boat has between 35 and 40 members of the crew. The five of the highest rank are natives of the country of origin, but the rest is mostly from the Philippines, or from Indonesian or African nations. And onboard they work in conditions that are awful most of the times. At the port of Montevideo we have seen crewmen from a Chinese vessel that had marks of shackles in the ankles”, reports Milko.
Furthermore, the Uruguay Navy, after a formal request made by the Organization for the Conservation of Cetaceans, had to describe in detail the facts that had taken place in the port of Montevideo related with the crewmen of the foreign vessels that normally dock there.
The answer of the National Maritime Coast Guard of that country includes chilling information: from 2013 and up to March 2018, the foreign fishing vessels disembarked 53 dead people. Almost one per month:
Montevideo, April 20, 2018
President of the
Organization for the Conservation of Cetaceans
Rodrigo GARCÍA PÍNGARO NOTE NUMBER 062/20/IV/18.-
I am hereby writing to you, with reference to your Note from last March 19, as regards the information connected with incidents that took place with foreign fishing boats at the port of Montevideo since 2013. After having consulted the Coast Guard of the port of Montevideo we can register as follows:
-Number of fires: 4
-Number of thefts and/or important fights: 5
-Number of ill people: 11
-Number of dead people: 53
FERNANDO PÉREZ ARANA
National Maritime Coast Guard
Triangular transaction through Montevideo
One of the main measures that Argentina took to discourage illegal fishing in the open sea was forbidding the entry to local ports.
“Our country does not allow the entry to national ports of foreign vessels that operate in the open sea”, they underlined in writing, and after being questioned by RED/ACCION, from the Undersecretariat of Fishing of the Nation, under the care of Juan Bosch.
In the same note, the Undersecretariat highlights that “illegal fishing, not declared and not regulated….can even cause the complete crash of a fishing ground or damage seriously the efforts to restore exhausted populations”.
Brazil and Chile took the same decision as Argentina and closed their ports. But that was not enough since Uruguay, through Montevideo, is receiving part of the catch that the vessels do across Chubut.
In an official statement announced in the Web site of the Uruguay presidency, the National Office of Maritime Resources announces a series of efforts to control the fishing vessels that enter Montevideo but acknowledges that in 2015 there were more than 1,500 unloadings and underlines that “more than half of them were done from ships that were transferred in the open sea”, which is understood as “a risky situation that can include illegal fishing”.
“What happens is that reefer ships or freezers board the fishing vessels in the open sea and load up the catch of up to 15 boats”, explains Milko and adds: “Before entering Montevideo with the load, Uruguay demands the Captain to report what he is taking, where he caught that, and from which ships comes from all that. Finally, that reefer gets to the port, does the unloading, puts the catch in a container and this one is carried by freighter to Asia, Europa or wherever. But nobody watches if what the Captain said that was carrying is true or not. Besides, the reefer mixes the cargo of 15 ships”.
Milko claims that the ships choose Montevideo because there are few controls over there and because of the cost, since “in that port, one does not have to pay VAT (value-added tax) and because the catch does not pay import and export fees since that is a duty-free zone”.
During an interview printed in November by the magazine Puerto, the president of the National Office of Ports of Uruguay, Alberto Díaz Acosta, assured that in the port of Montevideo a “physical control” on the ships is performed, even though he admitted certain weaknesses.
“I do not know if the control method is random or after a complaint”.
Possible solutions and the Malvinas problem
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982, is a multilateral treaty that Argentina supports, and this is the standard that tries to organize all activities in the sea.
Among other matters, this treaty sets up limits for maritime areas; the exclusive economic areas of each country; the continental shelf and the open sea. It also legislates on the sailing rights. But this treaty is not very clear as regards the exploitation of resources in international waters.
“Nevertheless, that convention says that the states must cooperate in order to adopt measures for the conservation of living resources of the open sea. And this is an ítem that Argentina could take advantage of so as to work in a solution”, mentioned Rucci, from OPRAS.
In Claudio Campagna’s opinion, the fact that in the area where foreign ships fish without any control there are further zone species is an element in itself “to exert sovereignty”.
For Milko, of Oceanosanos, Argentina has many legal tools. “In the Sustainable Development Goals of United Nations, there is one devoted to sea life”. That ítem calls “from now till 2020 to regulate effectively the fishing exploitation and to end excessive fishing, the illegal fishing, not reported and not regulated, as well as destructive fishing practices”.
Milko points out that it is also possible to resort to the World Trade Organization so as to lodge a complaint on the subsidies for this type of fishing and to the International Labor Organization for the conditions under which crewmen work.
“What other states do is working with the countries of the region in order to limit the access of this predatory fleet with some type of agreement or treaty that could get the recognition of United Nations, such as the Commission for the Conservation of Antartic Marine Living Resources, that managed to put in order the fishing in that area”, illustrates Milko.
Many of the parties interested in the matter agree with the need of coming to a regional agreement, but there is a lurking risk that up to now no government was ready to take. “If we wanted to come to an agreement with the coastal countries of the Southern Atlantic, we could be recognizing the Malvinas Islands, as a coastal state, indirectly”, warns Pucci.
At the Argentine Foreign Office they rather not make any comments on this subject. Whereas the Undersecretariat of Fisheries just said: “Argentina will keep on working as a group at an international level, while at a regional level the country is a member of the network of information and experiences among countries of Latin America and the Caribbean for the prevention, discouragement, and removal of illegal, not declared and not regulated fishing”.
The efforts of the Coast Guard and the invisible line
Carlos Villareal has been working for the Coast Guard for 32 years. He has been Chief of the Service of Maritime Traffic for some years now and he is one of the main responsible for watching over mile 200 of Mar Argentino.
“Now, looking at the monitoring equipment we have, I can say that there are some 200 ships at the 46 parallel, at the level of Comodoro Rivadavia, but between mile 201 and 210”, he underlines on the phone.
Villareal assures that they have one cost guard -and even two sometimes- monitoring that area 24 hours a day the whole year. “But they do not enter Mar Argentino, that is why we cannot do anything”, he explains.
They do enter sometimes, seldom. “We do detect them because we have the coast guard in the area because since 2014 we have a Beechcraft 350 plane set aside for this job and because we have a satellite control system”, mentions Villareal.
Since 1983 up to now, 75 ships were caught by the Coast Guard fishing illegally in Mar Argentino. A lot. Or little, if one takes into account that some miles further away, out of the Argentine exclusive economic area, up to 400 ships fish whatever they want and in the way they like without any controls.
(Translation from Spanish into English: Silvia S. Simonetti)