South America plans regional response to illegal squid fishing

Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina are concerned at the Chinese squid fishing fleet at the edge of their waters and pledge to cooperate

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Chinese giant squid vessels Galápagos

Ecuador's navy circles a Chinese fishing vessel suspected of fishing for giant squid illegally (image: Alamy)

On a sunny day in June 2019, the seven crew members of the artisanal fishing boat Mercedes Rosario spotted huge foreign industrial vessels off Peru’s Pacific coast. Captain Jorge Jacinto Galán decided to anchor nearby and wait for nightfall, when these vessels turn on their powerful lights to attract the Humboldt squid and catch it in large numbers.

"This boat was 50 miles off the coast of Callao," Jacinto recalls, well within Peru’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which foreign vessels cannot enter without permission.

Jacinto, who is also the president of the Association of Shipowners and Artisanal Fishermen of San José recorded the meeting in two photographs that he later showed at a meeting with Peruvian authorities. The vessels did not carry a flag, Jacinto said, a practice common among vessels that are suspected of engaging in illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Peru’s neighbour Ecuador found itself the focal point of global attention earlier this year as the Chinese fishing fleet stationed near the buffer zone around Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands caused a furore and now South American nations are pledging to work together to safeguard their marine resources.

Ecuadorean president Moreno told September’s UN General Assembly that the countries of the Permanent Commission for the South Pacific – Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Colombia – condemned illegal fishing in the vicinity of their territories and vowed to work together to tackle a problem that jeopardises the sustainable use of resources. They vowed exchange of information in real time in order to highlight suspected IUU practices and enable rapid responses.

International fleets, among which Chinese vessels feature prominently, follow the Humboldt squid as it migrates across South America’s vast maritime territories, necessitating regional coordination. Yet all countries along the route face their own individual challenges in monitoring and responding to suspected IUU fishing.

China’s distant water fleet in Latin America

China's distant water squid fishing fleet has grown steadily over the past two decades, according the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation.

Its first recorded operation in Latin American waters was in 2001, when there were 22 vessels. By 2015 there were 252 and in 2019 they reached 503. China’s distant water fleet (DWF) growth in recent years corresponds with a drop in seafood imports as it aims to meet huge demand.

Some Chinese vessels can be seen all year round off the Peruvian coast, searching for other species such as horse mackerel or mackerel. Half of the squid boats even reach the Atlantic, touching Argentina’s maritime limits. The passage is known as the 'squid route'.

giant squid route

While Chinese vessels in distant waters are not a new phenomenon, Moreno’s call for a regional response in the wake of the 260 boats sighted around the limits of Ecuador’s EEZ that encompasses the Galapagos Islands echoes his direct line of communication with China. The Ecuadorean president opened up the channel despite the vessels appearing to fish on the high seas.

China is ranked top of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime's index of IUU fishing. In fact, the Krakken database, developed by consulting firm FishSpectrum, has identified at least 183 Chinese vessels suspected of these practices in international waters as of 2018.

In April of that year, Argentine coast guards captured two Chinese boats [in Argentine waters] that are now on the edge of the Peruvian sea, according to Milko Schvartzmann, a marine conservationist who tracks the fleet. One is the Hong Pu 16, which was carrying 300 tonnes of frozen squid and had its satellite tracker disabled at the time of its interception. The other is the Lu Rong Yuan Yu 668, which turned off its lights, fled Argentina for international waters and weeks later reported to the authorities.

Less than six months after being sanctioned for illegal fishing, they are now operating again. Schvartzman has been able to confirm that at least 14 vessels from this group have a record of engaging in this illegal activity in national waters.

China’s distant water fleet is sustained by a government subsidies programme that covers the costs of equipment and fuel, provided that it remains operational for nine months.

"It subsidises an activity that would not be profitable without it,” says Schvartzman, who adds that it incentivises predatory practices that make it difficult to know the state of the Humboldt squid population, which is the most fished on the planet.

A 2018 study led by marine researcher Enric Sala, an explorer with the National Geographic Society, concluded that Chinese squid fishing was "consistently unprofitable, and subsidies made it profitable only outside Peru's EEZ”. Even in the south Atlantic near Argentina the fleets’ costs are four times higher than in the vicinity of China.

Earlier his year, China revised its fisheries law and, once in force, this will include a blacklist of vessels shown to have engaged in IUU fishing.

Peru: Against the clock

Global catch of the Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas) is mainly shared between three countries: Peru (49%), China (32%) and Chile (18%). But in the Peruvian and Chilean EEZs, it is caught using small-scale fishing gear, such as that used by Jacinto in his 20-tonne-capacity boat. Chinese boats can carry up to 600 tonnes and can unload them onto refrigerated reefers without having to return to land.

Peru is the world's leading producer of Humboldt squid, its second top fish export. But in 2017, China overtook Peru for the first time. And although the Andean country regained its place in 2018, it outperformed China by scarcely 16,000 tonnes: 362,000 tonnes compared to 346,000.

Alfonso Miranda, president of the Humboldt Squid Committee of the South Pacific (Calamasur), estimates that the Chinese fleet may be illegally fishing 50,000 tonnes of the species in Peruvian waters every year. "This means 50,000 tonnes less for the artisanal fleet and for the frozen food industry, which in economic terms represent US$85 million a year," he said.

It is not a matter of banning for the sake of banning. You have to understand very well the dynamics of how they operate

Following complaints to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO), the body finally decided to establish measures on squid fishing in international waters, beginning 1 January 2021. These will include catch reports, monitoring and the inclusion of artisanal vessels in its register. However, it has also imposed a series of requirements to formalise all vessels that want to enter international waters.

Formalisation has been a challenge for artisanal fishing in Peru, with technical requirements and processes that not all have managed to comply with, such as the size of the vessel, use of geolocation technology and catch registration. However, it is not uncommon for Peruvian fishermen to venture outside the EEZ in pursuit of species such as squid, horse mackerel or parrot fish.

“This means that we have until December 31 to complete the formalisation process so that we don’t fall into the category of illegals,” Miranda complained.

Furthermore, and despite local fishers’ complaints, data crunched by NGO Oceana and Global Fishing Watch indicate that Peruvian ports provide a great service to foreign squid fishing boats, especially Chinese. Between January and August 2018, 165 Chinese vessels were reported entering the terminals of Callao and Chimbote, equivalent to one per day. In the same period, only 17 South Korean squid boats docked.

In August, Peru demanded that all foreign vessels that want to use its ports comply with a government-authorised satellite tracking and state the volume of catches. It will not accept vessels with a history of illegal fishing.

Ecuador seeks balance

Chinese vessels only began to circle the EEZ buffer around Ecuador's Galapagos Islands in 2017, as satellite images from Global Fishing Watch (GFW) show. Although the fleet's incursions into its EEZ are few, its presence raises concerns for both biodiversity conservation and the fishing economy.

"GFW recently conducted an analysis of the squid fleet and found that from June 15 to July 28, 2020, six vessels operating near the Galapagos EEZ were constantly shutting down their ISA [tracking] system," says Edaysi Bucio, Global Fishing Watch's Latin America analysis coordinator, implying that there may have been undetected incursions.

However, there is still not enough information to draw conclusions. "It is not a matter of banning for the sake of banning. You have to understand very well the dynamics of how they operate, whether they only capture squid or whether they also look for other species," says César Peñaherrera, scientific director of the Migramar network.

$1billion

the annual value of Ecuador's giant squid exports (US$)

In fact, Ecuadorean fishermen do not currently catch Humboldt squid and it could represent a new economic activity. However, pota - as the species of squid is known locally - is part of the tuna food chain, Ecuador's biggest fish export, which in 2019 totalled international shipments worth US$1 billion. According to Peñaherrera, squid predation could cause tuna to migrate or alter their reproduction.

Sharks are also under threat from IUU fishing. In 2017, the Ecuadorian Navy stopped a Chinese ship in its waters with 5,226 sharks, including newborns and endangered species. Earlier this year, the South China Morning Post reported the largest seizure of shark fins in Hong Kong's history as 26 tonnes arrived from Ecuador, equivalent to 38,500 sharks.

However, local fishers are not blameless. Last year, an Ecuadorean-flagged oil tanker, Maria del Carmen IV, was identified by military authorities as it provided fuel to Chinese ships at sea.

Conservation groups in Ecuador have responded to such events by gathering scientific evidence on the distribution of fish populations in the country’s waters. According to Peñaherrera, they have an eye on negotiations over the UN’s convention on marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ), which seeks to create an international legal instrument.

Ecuador also recently joined the Global Ocean Alliance, a commitment promoted by the UK government to protect 30% of the global ocean by 2030, which to date has 30 member countries.

Chile: under control

According to Global Fishing Watch, foreign fleets have followed the trail of the squid to Chile, where the navy is now reported to be closely watching the Chinese fleet. In recent years, squid provided an economic lifeline to Chilean fishermen by replacing collapsed stocks of common hake. As the jibia - its local name - is found in the waters of northern Chile, predatory practices are more easily controlled by its armed forces.

However, 70% Chile’s fish stocks have collapsed or are overexploited, according to a recent report by the Chilean Undersecretary of Fisheries. "When we talk about a state of collapse we are talking about a very vulnerable state, where fishing of a resource could cause it to disappear," warns Valesca Montes, coordinator of sustainable fisheries for WWF Chile.

Illegal fishing is a problem that costs Chile US$397,000 per year, according to estimates by the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service (Sernapesca).

With respect to international vessels, the government has signed an agreement with Global Fishing Watch to ensure that there is full disclosure of their geographic positions.

In 2019, Chile passed the 'Cuttlefish Law' prohibiting trawling for the giant cephalopods and favouring artisanal fishing workers. Industrial fishers, who do trawl, sought to have it annulled by the Constitutional Court but were unsuccessful.

A 'war' in Argentina

On the other side of the continent, in the Atlantic Ocean, Argentina is experiencing a different challenge. The international fleet has numbered up to 500 vessels at peak season. Almost half are Chinese flagged. The rest fly the flags of Taiwan, South Korea and Spain.

Apart from short-finned squid (of the Illex genus), foreign fishers are also looking for banks of hake and prawns. In fact, these three species are Argentina's main fish exports, valued at US$1.8 billion in 2019.

"In Argentina it's a literal war," says Schvartzman, according to whom more than one Chinese ship is caught each year. In 2018, there were four ships that tried to ram the coastguard and in 2016 the Argentine authorities sank a Chinese ship in a chase that lasted several hours, he adds. Congress recently increased fines for illegal fishing, which can now reach up to US$1.9 million.

Schvartzman says that for South American countries, monitoring, control and surveillance cannot be the only preventive measures.

"Our countries have to protest to China and take the discussion of the problem to international bodies. They have to work as a block (...) because it is very difficult to confront China unilaterally," he says.