In 2021, some 350 Chinese-flagged vessels spent the first half of the year floating just beyond Argentina's territorial waters.
The ransacking was just one scenario in a broader spree of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing across the region in the past year, much of it driven by competition for diminishing catch.
Regional semi-industrial vessels mimicked the predatory tactics of foreign fleets, using transhipments and encroaching on the waters of neighboring countries. Ecuador exported a record haul of shark fins, thanks to aggressive fishing tactics and laws that allow shark products to be sold if declared as accidental bycatch. In Mexico, Chile, and Brazil, local fishers broke seasonal bans and poached valuable species.
This panoply of IUU fishing further depleted oceans and threatened marine ecosystems. Countries, however, began to search for ways to reel in the problem, signing agreements to extend reserves, increasing enforcement and sharing location data of fleets in a bid toward transparency.
Chinese Fleet Under the Spotlight
Several hundred Chinese vessels operate in Latin America's oceans year-round and have long been accused of plundering two main fishing grounds -- the waters near Argentina in the South Atlantic and those near Chile, Peru and Ecuador in the South Pacific.
Mainly using squid jiggers, which employ bright lamps to draw squid to the surface at night, the vessels have become expert at trawling just outside these countries' 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), hoovering catch by the millions. Captains also "go dark," turning off their ship's GPS-based automatic identification systems (AIS).
Rapacious behavior by the Chinese fleet drew alarm in 2020, when Ecuador warned that the fleet was trawling along the EEZ around the Galápagos Islands, one of the world's most biodiverse and highly protected marine reserves. Reports soon emerged that many Chinese vessels had gone dark, while unidentified vessels appeared inside EEZ lines.
In 2021, the Chinese fleet appeared to shift course, according to IUU fishing experts.
When the fleet moved to the South Pacific during the second half of this year, the vessels stayed 100 nautical miles clear of the Galápagos' EEZ, according to Milko Schvartzman*, an IUU fishing specialist at Circle for Environmental Policies, an Argentine non-governmental organization.
"There is no clue why they did that, but I guess it's because of government orders," Schvartzman told InSight Crime, referring to the Chinese government.
But the reason for the fleet's relocation may also be as simple as ocean currents. Bruno Leone, President of Ecuador's National Fisheries Chamber, said the jumbo squid targeted by the Chinese fleets near the Galápagos favor frigid temperatures. This year, the Humboldt Current happened to flow much further south than usual, drawing the migratory squid away from the EEZ, he said.
The fleet did appear to show more discipline earlier in the year when fishing off Argentina's EEZ. Of the hundreds of vessels, none was captured crossing into the country's waters between January and April. That said, it's rare for boats to be detained. Since 2016, the Argentine Navy has intercepted only six Chinese-flagged vessels.
In November, Chinese vessels returned and began fishing squid a full month before the start of the season, interrupting the species' reproductive cycle and violating basic practices of sustainability.
The fleet's past plundering has been well documented. A June report by Oceana, a non-governmental organization that tracks IUU fishing, used satellite data to show that more than 400 Chinese-flagged vessels fished for some 621,000 hours along Argentina's EEZ between 2018 and 2021. The vessels disappeared from tracking systems more than 4,000 times.
The report also identified a significant facilitator of Chinese IUU fishing in the South Atlantic: Uruguay's port of Montevideo, which serves as a deposit and clearing station for foreign fleets. It is the world's second-biggest port for IUU catch, according to a 2017 Oceana investigation, the last year for which the group has data.
Some 30 percent of the Chinese vessels that went dark docked there.
While there has been no evidence of illegal fishing by the Chinese fleet this year, unregulated overfishing has been booming, said Schvartzman. The squid fleet in Latin America grew by another 5 percent, he said.
"If the Chinese fleet keeps increasing, it will increase the risk of collapse of the fishery," Schvartzman said.
IUU Fishing and Other Crimes
Considered the world's sixth largest illicit economy, IUU fishing generates annual global revenues of between $15 billion to $36 billion, according to a 2017 report by Global Financial Integrity. Worldwide, it accounts for around 20 percent of all catch. In Latin America, that figure can be even higher, reaching nearly 50 percent in countries like Mexico.
IUU fishing is often coupled with other crimes, including forced labor and drug smuggling.
Foreign fishing vessels have unloaded scores of dead bodies at the port of Montevideo. The US State Department's 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report noted 17 crewmember deaths associated with Taiwan, Chinese and other foreign ships in Uruguay's waters between 2018 and 2020. Before 2018, observers reported an average of 11 crewmember deaths per year, according to the report.
Crews are often subjected to inhumane labor practices, including unpaid wages, confiscated identification documents, physical abuse and being locked aboard ships. According to the report, there are also anecdotal accounts of murder at sea.
From go-fast boats to industrial ships, fishing vessels are also used as cover to smuggle drugs.
This year, in southern Mexico, drug gangs set up fake fishing cooperatives whose boats then received cocaine from Colombia and Ecuador, according to a recent report by Mexico's Naval Secretariat (Secretaría de Marina - SEMAR). Composed of gang members and local fishers, crews traveled some 350 nautical miles and stayed at sea for up to ten days to fetch the drugs.
In Brazil, authorities dismantled an international cocaine trafficking ring that used industrial fishing boats to transport drug loads into international waters for pickup by foreign vessels. The vessels, which feigned industrial fishing activities and hired crews specialized in maritime navigation, trafficked over six tons of cocaine to Europe and southern Africa.
Coastal fishing villages have also been caught in drug gang turf wars. The Ecuador town of Posorja – a key cocaine dispatch point to the Pacific – saw a surge in violence this year. Fishermen were shot and robbed of their boats, while torched vessels lit up the night sky.
Cross-Border Illegal Fishing Explodes
A consequence of rampant overfishing in Latin America's oceans has been the increase in regional vessels crossing into neighboring countries' waters to fish illegally. The incursions have occurred with varying levels of sophistication and scale.
Mexican fishermen have responded to the total collapse of local stocks by targeting high-priced and better-managed red snapper populations in the Gulf of Mexico near southern Texas. Small speedboats depart from Playa Bagdad, a coastal strip east of the Mexican city of Matamoros, to penetrate US waters.
A July investigation by National Public Radio (NPR) estimated the US Coast Guard detects only about ten percent of such incursions.
Fishermen told NPR that they sell a load of US red snapper for up to $250 – triple the price of Mexican snapper. The Gulf Cartel has even been alleged to take a cut of the illegal snapper trade. The cartel is suspected of buying new boats for fishermen whose vessels are impounded after being detained by the Coast Guard, reported NPR, which cited sources in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
In Central and South America, a string of vessels has been caught fishing illegally in the waters of other countries. In January, the Venezuelan Navy detained three Guyanese fishing vessels for allegedly fishing inside its EEZ.
In February, two French Navy ships intercepted a Venezuelan vessel in the waters of French Guiana. It had almost a ton of illegally caught red snapper onboard. French Guiana has seen a surge in illegal fishing this past year.
In March, another Venezuelan vessel was detained off the coast of northern Brazil with nearly three tons of protected grouper. Brazilian authorities arrested 15 Venezuelan fishermen.
Off Colombia's Caribbean archipelago of San Andrés, industrial vessels with armed crews drove off local fishermen. According to Colombian military officials, a ship from the Dominican Republic detained this year had 60 crew members and nearly six tons of illegal catch.
Small boats also crept into other countries' waters. These include Haitian fishers in the Dominican Republic's Estero Balsa National Park and Paraguayan fishers on the Argentine side of the Paraná River.
Internal Illegal Fishing Leaves Waters Barren
This year, local vessels have left a wake of destruction, catching undersized marine life, using aggressive techniques and breaking seasonal restrictions and quotas. The poaching and trafficking of valuable seafood products to East Asia also continues to be rampant.
Ecuador's tuna fleet has long come under criticism for massive bycatch when using large nets and longline fishing gear, whose miles of baited hooks frequently catch sharks and other marine life. Under Ecuadorean law, the shark bycatch, including valuable fins, can be sold. By July of this year, Ecuador had exported nearly 170,000 kilograms of shark fin for a record $5.4 million.
The policy, environmentalists say, has led to sharks being illegally targeted and sold under the guise of bycatch. East Asia's appetite for shark fin soup largely drives the fin trade, where the delicacy can be sold for up to $300 per serving.
In Mexico's Yucatán, the black-market trade in seafood thrived this year. Local fishers said out-of-state boats raided their waters, fishing around the clock, using transshipments and eschewing seasonal bans. The result, according to Carlos Puga, leader of a Yucatán fishing cooperative, was a dramatic fall in catch. Some 11 tons of grouper were caught in July 2020, he told Milenio. This year's July haul was half that amount.
Corruption greased the wheels of the Yucatán fishing community of Dzilam de Bravo, where five large-scale seizures of illegally caught octopus ended in the suspicious escape of two alleged ringleaders. State news outlets claimed the municipal police had warned both traffickers before federal forces arrived.
Marine life caught during banned seasons and above quotas continued to occur at alarming levels in other Latin American countries, including Brazil and Chile.
Military police in the Brazilian state of Amazonas seized 800 percent more illegally caught fish in the first two months of 2021 than in the same period in 2020.
Much of the haul was poached arapaima, the world's largest scaled fish. The arapaima can only be caught in certified management areas, and its fishing season is closed in Brazil for half the year, during which licensed fishers receive subsidies.
Yet the policy, one of the few conservation measures attempting to consider local fishers' economic needs, has been criticized as self-defeating for leading to an increase in the number of people fraudulently claiming to be fishers. Meanwhile, poaching continues apace during the closed season.
In Chile, more than 450 tons of illegal catch was seized during the first six months of the year, including 82 tons of hake, a relative of cod for which there is a large appetite in the country. Small vessels are to blame for much of the hake's overfishing, according to a report by Bloomberg Philanthropies Vibrant Oceans Initiative, which works to increase fishing transparency.
The illegal harvest of abalone, a type of sea snail, and seaweed also boomed in Chile. These marine products were likely destined for East Asia. Asian demand also fed thriving black markets for the poaching of sea cucumber in Honduras and geoduck clam in Mexico.
The problems of poaching and overfishing have only been exacerbated by the economic pain brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, pushing more poor local fishers to engage in IUU practices.
What is Being Done to Combat Illegal Fishing?
This year, the Chinese fleet was the focus of many Latin American countries' enforcement efforts. Beijing also seemed to respond to the negative attention.
China, which provides billions in subsidies to its distant-water fleet, imposed stiffer sanctions on companies caught turning off transponders, tightened transshipment reporting requirements and instituted a ban on off-season squid fishing near Argentina and Ecuador.
Still, China has continued to act in ways that conservation experts say constitute bad faith, such as not being transparent over the fleet's subsidies and refusing proposals by several South American countries to impose regional anti-IUU fishing measures.
Some countries did not wait on the Chinese government to react.
Ecuador signed an agreement with the Canadian government to improve its satellite monitoring and conducted more aerial ocean patrols using spy planes. The country also expanded its Galápagos marine reserve and spearheaded a proposal to link it with those of Panama, Costa Rica and Colombia.
Panama announced that it would ban blacklisted fishing vessels from docking in its ports and purchasing Panamanian licenses and flags. If adequately enforced, the latter will be a significant blow to Chinese IUU fishing in the region, given that Panamanian-flagged vessels – many of them Chinese owned – regularly transship suspicious catch for unloading at local ports.
Both countries are likely to have been incentivized by external actors. This year the US has made fighting IUU fishing a priority in Latin America, possibly in part due to its global power struggle with China.
The US Coast Guard – which recently called IUU fishing the leading global maritime security threat – deployed a cutter to the South Atlantic at the beginning of the year. During its 68-day mission, the vessel visited Guyana, Brazil and Uruguay, where guardsmen held joint training exercises, gave presentations on law enforcement tactics and conducted patrols.
The deployment, however, hit rocky seas when a visit to Argentina was canceled. US and Argentine officials claimed the docking was dropped due to logistical challenges. But an unnamed Argentine government official told news outlet La Nación that the decision had more to do with the presence of the Chinese fleet off Argentina's waters.
Last month, Argentina stepped up its surveillance of the fleet, augmenting its satellite monitoring by posting a Navy vessel at the Strait of Magellan to identify suspicious incoming ships, as well as deploying planes, warships and three new French-built patrol boats to protect its territorial waters.
The country also enacted a series of small measures to combat IUU fishing, including introducing stronger legislation and increasing fines.
The US, meanwhile, responded to the plundering of its snapper stocks by decertifying Mexico. The dramatic step means that Mexican vessels will be denied entry to US ports for the next two years and may face restrictions on the export of fish to the US, according to a recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA.)
Re-certification will "require a decrease in the number of Mexican lancha (boat) incursions into the US EEZ, as well as a reduction in the number of repeat offenders," NOAA said.
While Ecuador placed a spotlight on China's actions, the country showed a lack of resolve in curbing shark finning. In the summer, legislators rejected a bill that called for a one-year ban on the sale of bycatch, including sharks.
That said, in Costa Rica, a similar ban on selling shark bycatch has failed to yield the desired result, with a lack of proper enforcement enabling the thriving trade in illegal fins.
Ecuador's government, however, did put forward several other proposals to tackle IUU more generally, including increasing the coverage of observers in longline vessels and eliminating transshipment in the high seas.
In April, Brazil took a step toward transparency, agreeing to share location data on its industrial fishing fleet with Global Fishing Watch, a partnership between Oceana, satellite technology company SkyTruth and Google. In this, it followed Costa Rica, Panama, Chile and Peru, among others, in sharing data to create a near real-time map of fleets to identify commercial fishing vessels entering protected areas and carrying out illegal fishing operations.
Such data is a crucial tool to combating IUU fishing, said Michelle Carrere, an editor who covers illegal fishing in Latin America for environmental news outlet Mongabay.
"Making the satellite data on fishing efforts transparent," she said, "that without a doubt is a help that adds up."
*Milko Schvartzman is currently working with InSight Crime on a project about IUU fishing.