The waters off the coast of Argentina are home to a unique phenomenon — seemingly “floating cities” of fishing vessels that exploit the lack of legislation in international waters to plunder the marine ecosystem. Most are part of China’s vast fishing fleet, which numbers in the hundreds and operate in international waters without any oversight or regulation, abusing legal loopholes to fish.
“From a distance these clusters of lights resemble a sunrise. Up close they look like cities, whose lights are captured from satellites,” Argentine researcher Milko Schvartzman, a marine conservation and illegal fishing expert, told Diálogo on May 22. “Even from space, some of them shine brighter than the city of Lima [Peru].”
These floating cities are made up of some 600 vessels, 80 percent of which fly the Chinese flag. The numerous lights they use to attract the plankton that squid, a coveted species for these vessels, primarily feed on, earned them the floating cities analogy.
Along with the floating cities come several problems that challenge authorities, scientists, and activists. The number of vessels has tripled in the last two decades, Chilean television station T13 reported.
Off the coast of Argentina, these vessels fish in the “Atlantic Blue Hole,” an area of some 6,600 square kilometers, located to the east of the San Jorge Gulf and the Argentine provinces of Chubut and Santa Cruz, the Scientific News Agency of the National University of Quilmes, Argentina, reported.
“Here the seafloor increases in depth abruptly, from about 300 to 800 meters; on a map with bathymetry it looks dark blue; hence the name,” Schvartzman said. “This depth, added to other factors such as warm and cold currents mean that there is great marine productivity and biodiversity there.”
It is precisely this richness that leads the Chinese fishing fleet to stay for long periods of time in that area, circumventing all kinds of regulations. China subsidizes these fleets through different mechanisms, such as refueling or paying half the cost of building the vessels.
The main objective of these fleets is squid fishing. In the Atlantic area, the most commonly caught is the Atlantic short fin squid and in the Pacific, the Humboldt squid (or Pacific giant squid). The Pacific season is in winter and the Atlantic season is in summer, so most of these 600 vessels simply sail back and forth.
“The fleet of some 600 vessels operates without control […]. The boats arrive in Argentina two months before the start of the season in mid-January and leave months later,” Schvartzman said. “So there is no respect for any kind of sustainability standard for the species.”
“These squid have a very short life span, close to a year. As these vessels catch hundreds of tons [of them], they don’t allow them to reproduce for years to come,” Marla Valentine, spokeswoman for marine conservation organization Oceana, told T13. “The activities of these vessels could be legal, as they are still offshore and outside Argentine waters, but it doesn’t mean that they are right or that they don’t have negative environmental impact.”
“What is happening today at the outer edge of the EEZs of Argentina, Peru, and Ecuador, causes severe damage to the environment, no matter whether they are inside or outside [of the EEZs,” Schvartzman added. “If a vessel is at mile 199, which is illegal fishing, or at 201, which is unregulated and unreported, the environmental, social, and economic impact is the same, because they catch the same species.”
Between 600,000 and 800,000 tons of Illex squid are caught illegally, unreported, or unregulated each year in the southwest Atlantic alone. This is an enormous figure, if one considers that Argentina legally catches some 150,000 tons of this species annually, Schvartzman said.
Slavery and death
In addition to the environmental impact, Chinese fishing fleets also contribute to social issues, such as using forced labor and taking part in human trafficking. There are also reports of accidents and deaths aboard these vessels.
The International Labor Organization estimated in 2021 that there were some 128,000 fishermen trapped in forced labor on fishing vessels, working up to 20 hours a day. According to Valentine, many of these workers are at sea for months or years before returning to port, where they can get support to escape these conditions, T13 reported.
But the outlook could change for IUU fishing fleets after United Nations (U.N.) member countries finalized a text in March that seeks to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. The High Seas Treaty, which still has to be ratified, sets out to protect marine biodiversity in international waters, qualifying 30 percent of the world’s oceans as protected areas.
After nearly two decades of negotiations, “this action is a victory for multilateralism and for global efforts to counter the destructive trends facing the health of the oceans, now and for generations to come,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said. “It is vital for achieving ocean-related goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework,” he added, referring to the pledge to protect a third of the world’s biodiversity — on land and on sea — by 2030 made at a U.N. conference in Montreal.