Fleets of fishing ships are going ‘dark’ in the South Atlantic, and China is the leading culprit

Chinese fishing boats
Fishing boats moored at the Huangsha Port in eastern Jiangsu Province, China, on May 4, 2021.

  • Hundreds of ships spent nearly a million hours off Argentina between January 2018 and April 2021.
  • They appeared to be fishing, and many went “dark,” presumably to hide where they were doing it.
  • A report from nonprofit Oceana found that Chinese-flagged fishing vessels were the biggest culprit.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Since 2018, hundreds of ships have trawled the edge of Argentina’s waters, conducting what is suspected of being illegal fishing and obscuring their locations to do so.

Between January 1, 2018, and April 25, 2021, more than 800 fishing vessels spent 900,000 hours doing what appeared to be fishing within 20 nautical miles of the boundary between Argentina’s exclusive economic zone and the high sea.

The analysis by Oceana, an ocean-conservation nonprofit, found that 69% of the visible activity was done by more than 400 Chinese-flagged fishing vessels.

In comparison, nearly 200 vessels under South Korean, Spanish, or Taiwanese flags conducted 26% of that visible fishing, while 145 Argentine fishing vessels did less than 1%.

Argentina China coast guard fishing
An Argentine soldier fires at a Chinese fishing boat during a pursuit in Argentine waters, February 22, 2018.

More worrying were the 6,227 “gap events” Oceana detected over that period, in which vessels were not visible on electronic trackers for more than 24 hours, possibly because they disabled their Automatic Identification Systems, or AIS.

These vessels were invisible for more than 600,000 hours. Two-thirds of the ships that went “dark” were Chinese-flagged squid jiggers – the most common type of ship in the region – though Spanish trawlers were “dark” more than three times as often as Chinese ships.

Most of the “dark” vessels appeared to have their AIS off for one to four days at a time and mostly disappeared about 5 nautical miles from the boundary of Argentina’s exclusive economic zone. (Coastal states have rights to resources within their EEZs, which extend 200 nautical miles from shore.)

“Disabling AIS hides fishing vessel locations from public view and could mask potentially illegal behavior, such as crossing into Argentina’s EEZ to fish,” Oceana said in its report.

China Argentina dark fishing Oceana

More than half the vessels that went “dark” encountered another vessel within a month of doing so, suggesting at-sea transshipment, through which illegal catches can be mixed in with legally caught fish, Oceana said.

This is the first time the fishing activity and gap events near Argentina’s waters have been quantified, according to Marla Valentine, Oceana’s illegal fishing and transparency campaign manager.

Valentine said the amount of fishing – 900,000 hours over three years – was “astronomical for such a concentrated area” and underscored the need for transparency, as 600,000 hours of “dark” fishing could dump tons of illegally caught fish onto the global market.

“Fishing at this scale, under the radar, and without regard for laws and sustainability can have detrimental impacts on entire ecosystems, as well as the people and economies that depend on them,” Valentine said in a release.

‘It’s all connected’

Ecuador Galapagos China fishing protest
Ecuadoreans protest illegal fishing around the Galapagos Islands on August 14, 2017.

China’s heavily subsidized distant-water fishing fleet is the world’s largest. Its catches are hauled back to China and often sold for export.

China is not alone in distant-water fishing, but its fleets are frequently accused of fishing illegally and overfishing.

Indonesia, where officials described Chinese fishing as “transnational organized crime,” blew up at least one Chinese fishing boat. African countries have detained and fined Chinese vessels, and Ecuador jailed a Chinese crew caught with 300 tons of illegally caught fish.

Chile and Argentina have both had run-ins with Chinese fishing vessels. Argentina’s coast guard has chased, fired on, and sunk Chinese vessels it said were fishing illegally in Argentine waters.

The appearance of some 300 Chinese-flagged fishing boats near Ecuador in summer 2020 drew international attention, including from US authorities, who have warned about such activity for years.

During the period studied by Oceana, 30% of the Chinese vessels fishing around Argentina – and 21.7% of those that went “dark” – also fished near Ecuador, Valentine said.

Chinese fishing boat Galapagos Ecuador
Ecuadorian Navy vessels surround a fishing boat near the Galapagos Islands’ EEZ, in the Pacific Ocean, on August 7, 2020.

The US Coast Guard frequently conducts operations to counter illegal, unregulated, and unreported, or IUU, fishing. One such patrol in the South Atlantic this year was the first “in recent memory.”

The service also released a “strategic outlook” report on IUU fishing in September.

“It’s bigger than catching a few boats with illegal tuna. This is really about systemic violations of … sovereignty, economic security, [and] weakening of the global rules-base order,” Adm. Karl Schultz, commandant of the Coast Guard, said in September.

Along with concerns about ecological damage and forced labor, Chinese fishing has geopolitical dimensions, especially in Latin America. US officials are wary of China’s increasing presence there, including in extractive industries.

As in other regions, illegal fishing in Latin America is seen as destabilizing, Adm. Craig Faller, who oversees US military activity in the region as head of US Southern Command, told the House Armed Services Committee in April.

“Food security is national security for any nation, and when nations are losing their food stocks, their fishing, it’s impacting their life. It’s driving insecurity,” Faller said. “It’s all connected, and we play a role.”

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