The fishing effort (fishing hours per vessel in a given period) of the Chinese fleet in the South Atlantic has increased eightfold in the last 10 years. Such was one of the findings of Argentine environmental organization Círculo de Políticas Ambientales (CPA) based on satellite data from the Global Fishing Watch platform.
The CPA study measured the “apparent fishing effort,” which is calculated from the speed of the vessels and the maneuvers they carry out. The conclusion is that, over the past 10 years, the Chinese fishing fleet fishing activities increased from 59,204 hours in 2013 to 469,912 hours in 2022.
“The study shows a general trend of an unconscionable and brutal growth in fishing effort that no marine ecosystem can withstand,” Milko Schvartzman, an environmentalist, illegal fishing expert, and one of the authors of the study, told Diálogo. “The most serious thing is that the Chinese government itself mentions that it is catching less and less despite the increased effort.”
The document mentioned was published by the Ocean Development Bureau in Weihai, China, on November 12, 2019. “In recent years, the number of fishing vessels operating on the high seas in the Southwest Atlantic has continued to increase and squid production has continued to decline,” the official Chinese document says. “However, there are abundant fishery resources in Argentina’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.”
According to Schvartzman, the reduction in catch despite the increase in Chinese fishing effort is “a clear sign that the ecosystem is in a situation of overexploitation.”
International law stipulates that states have control of the waters within 200 nautical miles around their coasts. Chinese ships fish around mile 201, at the limit of a country’s exclusive economic zone, in international waters. However, “hundreds of these vessels use different maneuvers to cross that limit and continue fishing beyond the permitted area, without the Chinese authorities implementing any effective sanction so far,” Argentine news site Infobae reported.
The Chinese fishing fleet “does not have any type of control and does not respect the reproduction seasons of the species,” the CPA indicated in its study. Among the species caught are elephant seals, sea lions, dolphins, sharks, and rays. Some are protected because of their vulnerable status, the NGO indicated. “These [Chinese] vessels also carry out their activity generating very high levels of polluting discharges and using slave labor,” the CPA added.
Beijing supports the operation of the Chinese fishing fleet in distant waters through actions such as fuel subsidies or, through the State’s shareholding in companies that own the vessels, Argentine business platform iProfesional reported.
“The lack of data on catch volumes and species, in addition to the non-existence of information on bycatch, could be a warning that the marine ecosystem is being pushed to the limit, without being able to have a minimum forecast of when a possible collapse will occur and avoid it,” the CPA said in its report.
More fishing hours
The number of fishing vessels arriving in the Southwest Atlantic from other latitudes, mainly from China, increased fivefold in the last decade, according to the CPA report. “In 2013, 74 Chinese-flagged vessels were counted, reaching 346 in 2022, a decrease compared to the 2021 peak of 429 units,” the study says. “Although a decrease of vessels is estimated in the last surveyed period, fishing effort continued to increase.”
“That is to say: there are fewer vessels, but they are fishing more hours. And they are even more hours than when there were more boats,” Schvartzman said. The vessels of the Chinese fishing fleet employ hundreds of lights to attract squid to the surface. The effect is of a floating city that travels along the coasts of South America.
Every year, the night sky of the Argentine maritime area is illuminated by the distant water fishing fleet of China, the world’s largest offender of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, InSight Crime, an organization that specializes in organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean said in an August 2022 report.
Tracking system off
Fishing effort can be calculated thanks to transmissions from automatic identification systems (AIS). These devices automatically provide information about a vessel to other ships and coastal authorities, indicates the Argentine Naval Prefecture on its website.
Since 2000, according to a resolution of the International Maritime Organization, large fishing vessels must be equipped with AIS and keep them in operation. However, many Chinese vessels turn off the AIS around mile 201, hiding their true location.
“Not all vessels keep their AIS on all the time, so there may be undetected fishing effort, as well as undetected vessel presence,” the CPA study says. As such, Schvartzman explains that the study’s conclusions are conservative. “Surely there are more fishing hours [by Chinese vessels],” the expert said.