China’s insatiable appetite for fish has its vessels take advantage of Latin America’s difficulties in protecting areas close to international waters. Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Chile, and Mexico are some of the countries that directly suffer the impact of Chinese vessels in their seas. According to Juan Carlos Sueiro, Peru’s fisheries director of the international organization Oceana, most illicit activities carried out by Chinese vessels occur in these areas.
“[Chinese vessels] are always in international waters, fishing near Latin American countries’ maritime borders. The areas near Peru and Argentina have the largest congregation of these vessels in the world. It’s not that they can’t fish in international waters, but their close presence generates controversy. For example, Oceana already identified vessels entering into Peruvian waters without a license or with duplicated ID,” Sueiro told Diálogo. “We also detected transshipments in the area near the Peruvian border. Refrigerated fishing vessels can be found in international waters to transfer their captures, fuel, and supplies. Although transshipment may be legal, in many cases it might also be helpful to launder the profits of illegal fishing, especially on open seas.”
What are the species of interest in Latin America?
China is the main market for the fishing industry, and has the largest open seas fishing fleet, with at least 2,900 vessels. Rodrigo García Píngaro, head of Uruguay’s Organization for the Conservation of Cetaceans, explains that Chinese fishing boats focus on two types of products: those found in great quantities and exotic ones, which garner high prices in Asia, regardless of any endangered status.
“The Asian market is hungry for seafood protein, whatever species that may be and whatever pays the most. They fish in large boats for whatever is available, even better if it’s trawling, because they leave the so-called ghost nets adrift,” García told Diálogo. “Species that suffer the most impact from Chinese vessels in regional seas are giant squid, cod, tuna, shark, and the totoaba.”
The totoaba, a fish endemic to Mexico, is one of the most threatened species and is critically endangered, according to Switzerland-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Totoaba bladder is highly valued in the Chinese market, due to its alleged healing and aphrodisiac properties.
Seizures for totoaba trafficking are frequent in Mexico as well as in Asian countries. In January 2018, Hong Kong police seized 28 kilograms of totoaba bladder, valued at about $600,000, at the Hong Kong International Airport. In July 2018, the international organization Center for Biological Diversity indicated on its website that the vaquita, a species of porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California, becomes collateral damage, killed in the nets that trap the totoaba fish. Today, only about 30 vaquitas remain.
Chinese fishing vessels are also involved in shark finning, in which fins are cut off from live sharks, whose bodies are then disposed of at sea. China has a large demand for fins to prepare shark soup, a traditional dish often served at weddings and celebrations. According to WildAid, an international organization for the protection and conservation of wildlife, about 73 million sharks are killed every year to satisfy the demand.
Ecuador is among the Latin American countries shark finning affects the most. About 300 tons of shark fins were found in August 2017 aboard the Chinese vessel Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999. Ecuadorean authorities seized the vessel in the Galápagos Marine Reserve, part of Ecuador’s National System of Protected Areas. Cod, which IUCN categorizes as vulnerable, and tuna, as vulnerable or endangered, are both wanted by Chinese vessels.
Lack of surveillance and structure
For Sueiro and García, Latin America must improve naval surveillance, which requires investment and, above all, regional coordination. “Governments need to do a great deal of monitoring, and carry out combined efforts. International waters are a major challenge. Consequently, international organizations exist to regulate ocean areas, such as the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation, which issues fishing permits to foreign ships and keeps a blacklist of ships accused of illegal fishing. However, this institution still needs to be strengthened,” Sueiro said. “The problem is that this largely occurs in international waters, where there are no controls and few capabilities to do it, except in recent years with satellite technology,” García added.
The U.S. and Ecuadorean navies conducted a naval passing exercise—PASSEX—on the Pacific Ocean, November 22, 2018, focused on preventing, deterring, and eradicating illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. But the fight is not easy. China clearly intends to exploit regional seas, and many species already suffer the consequences. Confronting the Chinese voracity for marine resources requires a regional commitment that can’t wait.