In early March, the Argentine Naval Prefecture (PNA, in Spanish) chased a Chinese-flagged ship that fished illegally in Argentina’s southern Patagonia waters. The Chinese fishing boat managed to flee the scene, leading the Argentine justice system to request an international warrant for its arrest, PNA reported.
The naval institution notified the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) on March 13, requesting the Chinese vessel’s arrest for “resisting or disobeying authority.” The Argentine Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship also required from the People’s Republic of China information related to home port, crew, and ship owner or company for which the vessel worked, PNA indicated in a press release.
“Illegal fishing is a global problem,” Rosendo Fraga, an Argentine political analyst who specializes in military issues, told Diálogo. “The argument of each country’s maritime border limits is a subject that hasn’t been fully resolved, because some countries have different views.”
On the night of March 1, PNA personnel aboard the coast guard GC-24 Mantilla detected the Chinese ship Hua Xiang 801 within Argentina’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), 199 nautical miles off the coast of San Jorge Gulf. The Chinese vessel didn’t emit satellite positioning information.
“It was a dangerous operation that lasted more than three hours,” PNA told Diálogo in a release. “Mantilla started sailing toward the fishing vessel and determined it was using its fishing equipment and had its working lights on, so we activated the protocol to prevent illegal fishing.”
The Mantilla's crew attempted repeated calls in Spanish and English to the fishing vessel and sent sound signals—all were ignored. The Chinese vessel proceeded to raise anchor and sail toward international waters, while jettisoning its fishing equipment.
During the escape, the vessel made dangerous maneuvers and attempted to crash into the coast guard ship. PNA responded with warning shots.
“Since there was no response, we followed protocol and sent warning shots toward the fishing vessel’s bow, in an attempt to deter its escape without affecting its navigation to safeguard the crew’s lives,” PNA said. “Despite this, the Chinese vessel’s captain didn’t stop, so we continued our warning shots toward the fishing vessel, over its floating line.”
Due to the vessel's position and course, the coast guard ship aborted the pursuit and returned to its patrolling area. Following the PNA’s actions, Argentine Minister of Security Patricia Bullrich praised the maritime force’s work in the fight against illegal fishing. “With more technology in their vessels, the force is each day more prepared to safeguard our natural resources located hundreds of miles off the [Argentine] coast.”
With a maritime territory extending more than 43,000 square kilometers, Argentina has an abundance of marine wealth, due to the biodiversity of the Argentine Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. During high season—from January to July—dozens of international fishing vessels, mostly Chinese and South Korean, come close to the Argentine maritime border to benefit from the high concentration of commercial species, such as squid (migratory), hake, ray, and shark, among others.
“The exploitation of natural resources—at sea, in the maritime subsoil, the Arctic, and Antarctica, and outer space—is a priority in the 21st century,” Fraga said. “This ichthyologic wealth demands solid measures for control, protection, and conservation, as well as monitoring of activity recorded in Argentine waters.”
The request for an international arrest warrant comes with some historical antecedents: In 2016, Argentina ordered the arrest of Chinese ship Hua Li 8 for fishing illegally in Argentine maritime territory. INTERPOL intercepted the Chinese vessel in April 2016, in Indonesian waters. The ship remained confiscated for months until its shipyard company paid a fine of more than $170,000.
In a similar case in February 2018, PNA requested an arrest warrant against Chinese vessel Jing Yuan 626 for fishing illegally in San Jorge Gulf and evading authorities during an eight-hour-long chase. In May 2018, the shipyard company paid a fine of more than $170,000.
In February 2019, PNA captured South Korean vessel O Yang 77 for fishing illegally inside the EEZ. In March, the shipyard company paid a fine of about $500,000 to recover the ship which had 130 tons of fish aboard. One month earlier, on January 24, an Argentine Navy P-3 Orion aircraft detected more than 350 foreign fishing vessels near the border of the Argentine EEZ.
Although the arrival of international ships close to the Argentine maritime border isn’t uncommon, the number of vessels observed in late January was higher than usual, the Navy stated. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Argentina loses an estimated $2 million annually due to illegal fishing.
“We have to think of diplomatic, military, and scientific and technological actions to defend Argentina’s rights,” said Fraga. Argentine Minister of Defense Oscar Aguad told the press that “an ambitious project will be launched to more efficiently control illegal fishing in the South Atlantic through a joint agreement with the Ministry of Security and the Secretariat of [Agriculture, Livestock, and] Fisheries.”