[By Gonzalo Torrico]
On a sunny day in June 2019, the seven crew members of the artisanal fishing boat Mercedes Rosario spotted big international vessels off Peru’s Pacific coast. Captain Jorge Jacinto Galán decided to anchor nearby and wait for nightfall, when these vessels turn on their powerful lights to attract Humboldt squid in large numbers.
“These boats were 50 miles off the coast of Callao,” Jacinto recalls, well within Peru’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which foreign vessels cannot enter without permission.
Jacinto, who is also the president of the Association of Shipowners and Artisanal Fishermen of San José, recorded the encounter in two photographs that he later showed at a meeting with Peruvian authorities. The vessels did not carry flags, Jacinto said, a practice common among vessels suspected of engaging in illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing.
Peru’s neighbor Ecuador found itself the focal point of global attention last year when a fleet of over 300 mostly Chinese fishing boats was identified near the buffer zone around Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. This fleet has since continued southward into Peru and some vessels have arrived in Chile’s waters. South American nations are now pledging to work together to safeguard their marine resources.
Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, told the UN General Assembly in September that the countries of the Permanent Commission to the South Pacific (CPPS) – Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Colombia – condemned illegal fishing in the vicinity of their territories and vowed to work together to tackle it. They said they would exchange information in real time to highlight suspected IUU practices and enable rapid responses. And on 4 November, the CPPS issued a statement that specified the “large fleet of foreign-flagged vessels” as cause for concern.
International fleets follow Humboldt squid as they migrate across South America’s vast marine territories, necessitating regional coordination. Yet each country along the route faces unique challenges in monitoring and responding to suspected IUU fishing.
Distant-water squid fishing in Latin America
The involvement of China’s distant-water fleet (DWF) in Humboldt squid fishing has grown steadily over the past two decades, according to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization.
Some Chinese vessels can be seen in the Pacific all year round, off the Peruvian coast, searching for other species such as mackerel. Half of the squid boats range all the way down into the Atlantic, past Chile and touching Argentina’s maritime limits. This passage is known as the “squid route”.
China is ranked top of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s index of IUU fishing. Using the Krakken Unique Vessel Indentifier Database, the Overseas Development Institute has identified at least 183 Chinese vessels suspected of these practices in international waters as of 2018.
In April of that year, Argentine coast guards captured two Chinese boats in Argentine waters, according to Milko Schvartzmann, a marine conservationist who tracks the fleet. One was the Hong Pu 16, which was carrying 300 tonnes of frozen squid and had its satellite tracker disabled at the time of its interception.
Within six months they had begun operating again. Schvartzman said at least 14 vessels from this group have a record of engaging in this kind of illegal activity in national waters.
In 2019, China started to revise its fisheries law and, once in force, this will include a blacklist of vessels shown to have engaged in IUU fishing. It also announced two closed seasons in what are thought to be the main spawning grounds of the Humboldt squid and Argentine shortfin squid.
Peru: Against the clock
The global catch of Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas) is landed mainly by three countries. Using FAO data, Calamasur, a Humboldt squid conservation group, estimates that between 2013 and 2014 Peru caught 49%, China 32% and Chile 17%. But in the Peruvian and Chilean EEZs, the species is caught using small-scale fishing gear, such as that used by Jacinto in his 15-tonne-capacity boat. Chinese boats can hold up to 600 tonnes of catch which they can unload onto reefers without having to return to land.
Alfonso Miranda, president of Calamasur, estimates that the Chinese fleet may be illegally fishing 50,000 tonnes of Humboldt squid in Peruvian waters every year. “This means 50,000 tonnes less for the artisanal fleet and for the frozen food industry, which in economic terms represent $85 million a year,” he said
Following complaints, the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO) decided to establish measures on squid fishing in international waters, implemented from January 1 this year. These include catch reports, monitoring, and the inclusion of artisanal vessels in its register. It has also imposed a series of requirements to formalize all vessels that want to enter international waters.
Formalization has been a challenge for artisanal fishing in Peru, with technical requirements and processes that not all have managed to comply with, such as vessel size, use of geolocation technology and catch registration. However, it is not uncommon for Peruvian fishers to venture outside the EEZ in pursuit of species such as squid, horse mackerel or parrot fish.
“This means that we have until December 31 to complete the formalization process so that we don’t fall into the category of illegals,” Miranda complained late last year.
Furthermore, and despite local fishers’ complaints, data crunched by NGOs Oceana and Global Fishing Watch indicate that Peruvian ports provide a useful service to international squid fishing boats. Between January and August 2018, 165 Chinese vessels were reported entering the terminals of Callao and Chimbote.
Last August, Peru demanded that all foreign vessels that want to use its ports comply with a government-authorized satellite-tracking scheme and state the volume of catches. It will not accept vessels with a history of illegal fishing.
Ecuador seeks balance
Chinese vessels first neared the EEZ buffer around Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands back in 2017, as satellite images from Global Fishing Watch (GFW) show. Although the fleet’s incursions into the EEZ are few, its presence raises concerns for both biodiversity conservation and the fishing industry.
“GFW recently conducted an analysis of the squid fleet and found that from 15 June to 28 July 2020, six vessels operating near the Galapagos EEZ were constantly shutting down their AIS [tracking] system,” says Edaysi Bucio, Global Fishing Watch’s Latin America analysis coordinator, implying that there may have been undetected incursions.
However, there is still not enough information to draw conclusions. “It is not a matter of banning for the sake of banning. You have to understand very well the dynamics of how they operate, whether they only capture squid or whether they also look for other species,” says César Peñaherrera, scientific director of the MigraMar conservation network.
Ecuadorean fishermen do not currently catch Humboldt squid. However, pota – as the species is known locally – is prey for tuna, Ecuador’s biggest fish export, which in 2019 was worth $1 billion. According to Peñaherrera, squid predation could cause tuna to migrate or alter their reproduction patterns.
Sharks are also under threat from IUU fishing. In 2017, Ecuador’s navy stopped a Chinese ship in its waters with 300 tonnes of fish, mainly shark. In 2020, the South China Morning Post reported the largest seizure of shark fins in Hong Kong’s history, as 26 tonnes arrived from Ecuador, equivalent to 38,500 sharks.
Local fishers are not blameless either. Last year, an Ecuadorean-flagged oil tanker, Maria del Carmen IV, was identified by military authorities providing fuel to Chinese ships at sea.
Conservation groups in Ecuador have responded to such events by gathering scientific evidence on the distribution of fish populations in the country’s waters. According to Peñaherrera, they have an eye on negotiations over the UN’s convention on marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ), which seeks to create an international legal instrument.
Ecuador also recently joined the Global Ocean Alliance, a commitment promoted by the UK government to protect 30% of the global ocean by 2030, which to date has 30 member countries.
According to Global Fishing Watch, foreign fleets have been following the trail of the Humboldt squid to Chile, where in December the navy was reported to be closely watching the Chinese fleet. In recent years, squid has provided an economic lifeline to Chilean fishers by replacing collapsed stocks of common hake. The jibia – its local name – is found in the waters of northern Chile.
According to a recent report by the Chilean Undersecretary of Fisheries, 70% of Chile’s fish stocks have collapsed or are overexploited. “When we talk about a state of collapse we are talking about a very vulnerable state, where fishing of a resource could cause it to disappear,” warns Valesca Montes, coordinator of sustainable fisheries for WWF Chile.
Illegal fishing costs Chile $397 million per year, according to estimates by the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service (Sernapesca).
With respect to international vessels, the government has signed an agreement with Global Fishing Watch to try and ensure full disclosure of geographic positions.
In 2019, Chile passed the “Cuttlefish Law” prohibiting trawling for the giant cephalopods and favoring artisanal fishing workers. Industrial fishers, who do trawl, sought to have it annulled by the constitutional court but were unsuccessful.
A ‘war’ in Argentina
On the other side of the continent, in the Atlantic Ocean, Argentina is experiencing a different challenge. The international fleet has numbered up to 500 vessels at peak season. Almost half are Chinese flagged. The rest fly the flags of Taiwan, South Korea and Spain.
Apart from short-finned squid (of the Illex genus), foreign fishers also look for banks of hake and prawn. In fact, these three species are Argentina’s main fish exports, valued at $1.8 billion in 2019.
“In Argentina it’s a literal war,” says Schvartzman, according to whom more than one Chinese ship is caught each year. He adds that in 2018 four ships that tried to ram the coastguard and in 2016 the Argentine authorities sank a Chinese ship in a chase that lasted several hours. Argentina’s congress recently increased fines for illegal fishing, which can now reach up to $1.9 million.
Schvartzman says that for South American countries, monitoring, control and surveillance cannot be the only preventive measures.
“Our countries have to protest to China and take the discussion of the problem to international bodies. They have to work as a block . . . because it is very difficult to confront China unilaterally,” he says.
Gonzalo Torrico is freelance journalist based in Peru.
This is an edited version of an article originally published on Dialogo Chino. It appears here courtesy of China Dialogue Ocean.
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