As Colombia and Nicaragua continue battling over fishing rights and policing around the Caribbean archipelago of San Andrés, its waters have become vulnerable to illegal fishing from vessels across the region.
Colombian fishermen reported to military officials in early November that they had been driven off by illegal fishing vessels from Central America, the newspaper El Extra reported. Some of the crews were armed with assault weapons, according to the fishermen.
Officials with Colombia's Navy have also reported intercepting boats with illegally harvested seafood. From January to October of this year, some 12 tons were seized, much of it caught in northern waters around San Andrés, Admiral Hernando Mattos Dager told El Nuevo Siglo. Boats have been discovered with large crews and catches.
A ship from the Dominican Republic detained this year had 60 crew members and nearly 6 tons of illegal catch, according to the naval commander.
In October 2020, two Jamaican ships were discovered with an illegal haul of some eight tons.
Over the last five years, ships from the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Nicaragua and Venezuela have been detained for fishing illegally around San Andrés. Colombian vessels have also been caught, according to Mattos Dager.
Species commonly fished illegally include queen conch, spiny lobster, king crab and parrotfish, according to recent seizures.
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The archipelago's distance from Colombia's mainland, disputed waters and abundant marine life have made it an attractive destination for illegal fishing crews.
The archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia, and Santa Catalina – which sits about 775 kilometers(480 miles) from the Colombian mainland and 230 kilometers (140 miles) from Nicaragua, has been the subject of years of legal battles between the two countries. The cluster of islands form part of Colombia, and the country has long laid claim to the surrounding waters. But A 2012 ruling by the International Court of Justice drew a demarcation line granting 75,000 square kilometers of Caribbean sea to Nicaragua.
The ruling also meant that Nicaragua's Navy, which is far smaller than Colombia's, has been left to police illegal fishing in the area. Both navies have spent more time eyeing each other than patrolling the waters for illegal vessels.
In the wake of the ruling, local fishermen have noted an increasing presence of industrial boats that use longline fishing gear and lobster pots, according to a 2020 report by an investigator at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Armed, illegal fleets – mostly from Honduras and Jamaica – have also moved in, using banned techniques and capturing protected species. Complaints of illegal fishing to the Colombian Navy also often go unanswered, according to the fishermen.
Illegal fishing has not only impacted the livelihoods of small-scale fishermen - many of whom have quit - but also the health of the archipelago's Seaflower maritime reserve.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, tourism and climate change have all threatened the Seaflower Reef, which is part of the third-largest coral reef structure in the world and accounts for over 77 percent of Colombia's total coral reef area. Though there have been efforts to protect the reef through sustainable tourism, illegal fishing threatens to undo much of these gains.