The capture of a Chinese fishing vessel and detaining of its crew in Uruguay, on suspicion of illegal fishing, is a rare instance in which a Latin American country is fighting back against encroaching fleets.
On July 5, Uruguayan authorities revealed that at least 11 tons of squid had been found inside the Chinese fishing vessel, Lu Rong Yuan Yu 606, after it was detained a day earlier 150 nautical miles off the city of Punta del Este. The haul was only found during a secondary, more thorough search after an initial inspection failed to detect anything.
This is the latest twist in a saga that has fascinated the country for the last several days.
On July 1, several vessels were reported as fishing illegally inside the waters of Uruguay’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). A naval aircraft was dispatched to confirm the report and detected two jiggers, specialized vessels usually used to fish for squid.
On July 3, a Uruguayan patrol vessel was sent to investigate and potentially detain the ships. It found the Lu Rong Yuan Yu 606 with lights on which are used to catch squid. According to authorities, the Chinese jigger initially accepted an order to be boarded but then tried to flee when the Uruguayan ship dispatched staff on speedboats.
Thus began a chase between the Uruguayan patrol vessel, the ROU Maldonado, and the Chinese ship. It went on through the night and ended in the early hours of July 4 when the jigger was caught and boarded.
The crew, made up of 14 Chinese and 14 Indonesian citizens, was detained and an administrative investigation was opened to determine if the squid was caught in Uruguayan waters. If so, criminal charges may be forthcoming, said the Attorney General’s Office.
Hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels regularly spend the entire year hovering close to Latin American waters, and increasingly, encroaching on the waters of various countries. The demand for seafood in China is such that various species of squid, shark, rays, tuna and numerous other, smaller species are dredged up from the seafloor in colossal numbers, severely harming population numbers.
Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is considered the world's sixth-largest illicit economy, worth between $15-$36 billion a year, according to a 2017 report by Global Financial Integrity.
While it accounts for around 20 percent of all seafood caught worldwide, this figure can be much higher in Latin America, reaching nearly 50 percent of all catch in Mexico.
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Uruguay's capture of the Chinese vessel belies the fact that ocean conservation experts have long criticized the South American country for facilitating IUU fishing through its port of Montevideo, which serves as a deposit and clearing station for illegal catch.
Oceana, a non-governmental organization that tracks IUU fishing, used Global Fishing Watch data to search for signs of IUU fishing activity along the border of Argentina's national waters from January 2018 to April 2021. According to its report, some 6,000 vessels went dark, meaning the boats turned off their GPS-based automatic identification systems (AIS). Of the vessels that turned off their responders, 30 percent docked at Montevideo, Oceana highlighted. In 2017, Oceana declared that Montevideo was world's second-biggest port for IUU catch.
Uruguay has also been called out for turning a blind eye to the unloading of dead fishing crew members at its port. Between 2018 and 2020, the deaths of 17 crew members were associated with ships in Uruguay's waters or docked at the Montevideo port, according to the US State Department's 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report.
Besides vociferous protests and demands for Chinese fleets to leave their waters, Latin American countries have often seemed powerless to hold China to account for IUU fishing
And despite the recent capture of the ship, it is uncertain if the government of President Luis Lacalle Pou will take a different stance with China. In November 2020, Lacalle Pou explained that Uruguay could become China's hub "to bring their products and services to the region."
Regional responses to IUU fishing have differed but none have seen much success. Since 2016, the presence of Chinese fishing vessels began being particularly acute in the waters of Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina and other Latin American and Caribbean countries.
As a result, Local fishermen have been forced to move to new areas due to common fishing spots being barren. Protected maritime areas, such as Colombia’s Malpelo Reserve or Ecuador’s Galapagos islands, have been plundered.
Yet responses have been weak. In January 2021, four countries vowed to form a united front against Chinese fishing. It appears to have made no difference.
Acts of direct confrontation or a capture of a Chinese vessel are rare. In 2017, an Ecuadorean Navy vessel chased down one Chinese ship from the Galapagos Islands, with warning shots being fired to force it to stop. Around 300 tons of shark meat were found onboard, including endangered hammerheads and even shark pups.
Ignoring orders to stop and trying to evade pursuit are commonplace tactics for Chinese ships, on the rare occasions authorities give chase. Detained vessels are often impounded and never returned to their Chinese owners. In Argentina, one captured ship was sunk to create a diving attractions for tourist, while in Ecuador, one was handed over to the country's Navy.
Yet, these isolated incidents are a drop in the ocean compared to the hundreds of vessels that come every year.