Illegal fishing off the coast of French Guiana surged amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as French maritime patrols struggled to mobilize resources, luring illegal fishing crews to the country's pristine waters.
On February 11, a Venezuelan fishing vessel was intercepted in French territorial waters by two French Navy vessels, with almost a ton of illegally caught red snapper on board, according to France TV. This was just a drop in the ocean, as nearly 20 tons of fish have been seized from illegal fishing vessels since the first of the year.
French Guiana is not a new target for this practice but Navy ships have tussled with fishermen from Brazil, Guyana and Suriname in recent months. In 2020, French Guiana’s authorities reduced sea patrols due to sanitary restrictions and unforeseen resource shortages, as recognized last September by Captain Eric Aymard, the commander of French Guiana’s Maritime Zone, who coordinates the country’s operations against illegal fishing.
Despite local reports of more than a dozen foreign boats operating off the coast of Iracoubo, a region known for its bountiful waters, maritime patrols were made less frequent amid concerns that contact with illegal fishing crews risked spreading COVID-19. Instead, resources were deployed to supplement the country’s response to the evolving health crisis, with serviceable vessels used to enforce border closures with Brazil and Suriname.
“Of the five coastal and offshore vessels, I had two left to do the same job as usual,” explained Aymard, referring to a series of scheduled maintenance reviews for French Guiana’s maritime fleet.
With several boats docked for repairs, the fight against illegal fishing fell to one coast guard patrol boat, the “Organabo.” For various months, the Organabo balanced the policing of Brazilian fishing boats in the east and patrolling the waters off Iracoubo in the west, where Venezuelan and Surinamese crews operate.
One exception came between September 7 and 13, 2020, when authorities launched Operation Mokarran 2020, in a push to crack down on illegal fishing. Over that week, aerial and naval forces impounded a number of ships, including one Brazilian vessel carrying over three tons of fish and fish bladders.
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While illegal fishing has risen across the region, especially due to the pandemic and the economic crisis it exacerbated, French Guiana has rarely struggled to enforce its maritime zone. The French naval base at Kourou has given the territory a stronger ability to react to illegal fishing than many of its neighbors.
Historically, French authorities have been active in cracking down on the ships and crews, usually destroying any boats that are caught and sentencing any fishermen putting up a fight to fixed prison terms. In October 2019, five Brazilian fishermen were sentenced to 18-month jail terms, largely for resisting arrest, while 22 of their crewmates were sent back across the border.
However, the combination of scheduled repairs and the COVID-19 pandemic allowed fishermen to target the relatively pristine waters of French Guiana. Recent studies have shown how well preserved the waters of French Guiana have remained, with one report by Greenpeace in 2019 showing that the area was critical for emblematic species, including humpback whales, hammerhead sharks, sailfish and ocean sunfish.