Boats fishing illegally slip through the nets at Uruguay's main port
Every year, a fleet of about 300 Chinese-flagged ships fishes off the coast of South America. It follows a route that runs from the South Atlantic off Argentina, round the southern tip of the continent, past Chile and Peru to the vicinity of the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific near Ecuador. Some of these vessels have been caught fishing illegally and some have even been accused of human rights violations. For these reasons, in addition to the enormous quantities of fish that are caught by these vessels and which often go unreported, the operations of the Chinese fleet in the region are a source of concern for scientists and marine conservationists.
On average, 300 foreign fishing vessels dock at the Port of Montevideo annually. It is the main port in the region for the Chinese fleet, which accounts for the majority of boats docking here.
According to the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, Uruguay is among the top 25 countries in the world in terms of efforts to counter illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Uruguay is one of the signatories to the UN Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA), which obliges Montevideo to only give access to vessels that can prove all their catches are legal and reported.
But experts doubt the efficacy of the PSMA in Montevideo. It is the only free port in the region, which means laxer tax regulations. Globally, it is one of the ports most visited by transhipment vessels which, as recognised by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), encourage illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. These large refrigerated vessels, also known as reefers, receive the catch of smaller vessels at sea, allowing them to empty their cargo holds without having to return to port, so they can continue fishing uninterrupted for long periods of time. Transfers from one vessel to another is one of the most common strategies used for illegal fishing, the FAO says, since reefers mix catches from numerous smaller boats, making individual catches untraceable.
Information provided to our reporter by the Port of Montevideo confirmed that boats and reefers with a history of illegal fishing have docked there. The port has also received fleets denounced for labour abuses and human trafficking.
"We have detected cases of labour abuses, such as excessive working hours without rest periods, wage disparities, informal contracts and physical and verbal abuse, on ships arriving in the port of Montevideo," says Jessica Sparks, a researcher at the University of Nottingham who specialises in labour abuses in ports.
The role of shipping agencies
Although it is the Uruguayan government that determines who can use the port's services, shipping agencies play a significant role. They are the representatives of foreign fishing vessels in the country.
Agencies operate all over the world, performing functions linked to the entry, stay, provisioning and departure of a ship in port, from the purchase of foodstuffs to dealing with the crew. "The agencies do all the administrative work required for the operation of ships in port. They bring the translators, buy the groceries and coordinate the logistics," explains Milko Schvartzman, a marine conservation specialist from Argentina.
The shipping agent is the legal representative of the shipowner or operator in the foreign country, and is legally responsible for any claims related to the vessel's activity in the port and in national waters. Thus, "if the shipowner has committed an infraction, such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, the maritime agent should be aware of this as the representative, which gives him a certain degree of complicity", says Eduardo Pucci, director of Pucci and Associates, a law firm specialising in maritime law in Argentina.
deceased crew members were disembarked at the port between 2013 and 2021.
If a vessel was previously sanctioned but paid the corresponding fine, or if the court case was closed, the agency is not prevented from providing services. However, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing or human rights abuses are not always formally sanctioned by national governments, which allows the agency to assist vessels suspected of illegal activities, Schvartzman says.
In addition, agencies have information on a ship at least a week before its arrival in Montevideo, so they can decide if they want to provide services for it or not, Schvartzman adds.
Schvartzman, who has spent a large part of his career investigating the operations of the Chinese fleet in Latin America, says the agencies "are also sometimes the ones who seek to lobby the government to obtain greater flexibility in the permits that must be presented in port". Likewise, through lobbying, the agencies seek to cut costs for ships so that, for example, "deceased crew members are cremated and do not have to be repatriated". Human rights groups accuse the port of receiving vessels known to have committed abuses at sea. Crew members have been found beaten, locked up on the ships, subjected to starvation regimes and forced to work for days without sleep. According to figures from Uruguay's navy, 59 deceased crew members were disembarked at the port between 2013 and 2021.
Between 2012 and 2021, a total of 68 shipping agencies assisted foreign fishing vessels in Montevideo. Among them, Verny stands out as the agency most used by Chinese vessels, several of which have been linked to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and labour abuses.
Based in Montevideo, Verny’s president is Lu Zhao, a Chinese national. Uruguayan Marcos Henares Madera, Verny’s secretary, describes the company on his LinkedIn page as an agency "representing fishing vessels, reefer and bunkering carriers operating commercially in Montevideo, Uruguay".
Henares, who is also president of Vecalfa, a logistics company, was Verny’s vice-president in previous years. Repeated attempts were made to contact the company, but at the time of publication, no reply had been received.
According to information provided by the Port of Montevideo, between 2012 and 2021 Verny assisted 507 ships, of which 344 sailed under the Chinese flag. This makes it the main agent for ships from the Asian country. While other agencies also assisted Chinese-flagged ships, such as Christophersen (160), Tideman (136) and Repremar (25), none come close to Verny's numbers. The remaining 163 vessels assisted by Verny were Spanish- and Panamanian-flagged.
Among the vessels with a record that Verny assisted in Montevideo are the reefers Hai Feng 658, Hai Feng 688 and Ocean Mariner, which the government of Panama all sanctioned for transhipment.] In 2017, the company assisted the Fu Yuan Yu 7883, which was later implicated in a forced-labour case when 18 Indonesian workers alleged that they were not paid for their work between 2018 and 2020. Verny also assisted the Fu Yuan Yu 7614 in 2020 when it called at Montevideo to disembark crew on “humanitarian grounds”, according to C4ADS, an organisation which provides data and analysis of transnational security issues.
Verny also assisted boats from the Lu Rong Yuan Yu fleet. Vessels 679, 688, 977, 895 and 939 disembarked crew members with health problems, as well deceased ones, in Montevideo. The 668 was detected fishing illegally in Argentina in 2020, and although it escaped initially, the crew later decided to turn themselves in and the vessel was escorted to Argentina by the navy.
In 2013, Verny was involved in a human trafficking case in Uruguay. The government uncovered a criminal organisation trafficking Chinese nationals. The organisation brought six people between the ages of 22 and 63 into the country, one to work on a Chinese-flagged ship through a work permit supplied by Verny. Following the investigation, 18 people were prosecuted.
Aldo Braida, president of the Uruguayan Chamber of Foreign Fishing Agents, which represents Verny, argues that it is not the agency's responsibility to check up on vessels. "We only transmit the documentation that is requested from the government prior to arrival, which is, in fact, a lot,'' he says.
A vessel must present a declaration that it has not fished illegally, a fishing permit and a declaration from the flag state that it has registered the vessel, among other documents. A vessel must provide a reason for coming into port, such as to change crew or unload goods, and it can also be inspected in person. However, in practice, the documentation has many problems. "Often not all the requirements are fulfilled or what is completed is not true," Schvartzman says.
Braida dismisses the complaints against foreign fishing vessels operating in Montevideo, which he says are not backed up. The agencies know the vessels they work with, Braida says, which are usually the same every year. They only withdraw their assistance when there is an open legal case against one of the vessels, he says.
The Port of Montevideo and foreign ships
Jaime Coronel, director of Uruguay’s National Directorate for Aquatic Resources (DINARA), maintains that port controls have improved drastically in Montevideo since the signing in 2013 of the PSMA.
"Seeing that a state increases controls, vessels guilty of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing do not want to be exposed and look for alternative ports. That may have happened in Uruguay in recent years. Our controls have improved by up to 100% in some aspects. But we can't rule out all illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing either," says Coronel.
Marine conservation organisations agree that there has been some improvement in Montevideo since the PSMA was ratified, but point out that controls and sanctions are still insufficient. There is a lack of inspectors in the port and DINARA should allocate more money to regulate foreign vessels, they add.
The port sanctioned 46 fishing boats between 2011 and 2022, according to a Freedom of Information request, more than half of which were Uruguayan. Only two Chinese ships appear on the list, one of which is the Lu Rong Yuan Yu 829, which was represented by Verny. The sanction was in 2021 for "non-compliance with the port operations regime", according to the document.
For Andrés Milessi, a Uruguayan biologist and coordinator of the One Sea project, which seeks to establish marine reserves, much remains to be done and there is a lack of action on regulation. Schvartzman agrees. "In 2018, a Spanish boat, Playa Pesmar 1, was detained in Argentina for illegal fishing. It paid the fine, went to Montevideo with the cargo and nothing happened there."
In Pucci's opinion, the Uruguayan government should prevent shipping agencies from representing a foreign fishing vessel with an open sanction or a long history of illegal activities.
"Things could definitely be very different in terms of the supervision of shipping agencies and their coordination with the Uruguayan port authorities," he says.
This story was produced by Mongabay with the support of Fabian Werner of Sudestada and the Earth Journalism Network.