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BUENOS AIRES, Mar 13 2018 (IPS) - The capture of a Spanish vessel illegally fishing in the so-called Argentine Sea made headlines, once again, although it is not news that hundreds of boats regularly pillage the South Atlantic, taking advantage of the lack of regulations and controls.
The Playa Pesmar Uno vessel was captured by the Argentine Naval Prefecture – the country’s coast guard – on Feb. 4 while fishing without a permit in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – up to 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the coast – within the area known here as the Argentine Sea. It had 320 tons of fresh fish in its holds: Argentine hake, pollock, squid and ray.
The ship was transported with its crew of 34 to the Comodoro Rivadavia port in the southeast of the country, where it was released in late February, after paying a fine of just over one million dollars.
“The capture of this and other boats is just the tip of an iceberg of a very serious problem. There are hundreds of ships from different countries poaching along the boundary of the EEZ. Although there is no specific data, it is evident that they are overfishing,” said Santiago Krapovickas, a conservation biologist who works in Puerto Madryn, in the southern province of Patagonia.
These boats – mainly from China, South Korea and Spain, according to information from the Under-Secretariat of Fisheries – take advantage of the fact that there is no regional regulation of fisheries outside the Argentine EEZ and therefore they do not have catch or seasonal limits or zonal quotas.
Sometimes, however, they cross the boundary and enter the EEZ, perhaps in search of better fishing, in a country with 5,000 km of Atlantic shoreline, to the east.
It is along the boundary of the EEZ that the Argentine Naval Prefecture captures boats, despite the fact that some of their vessels are over 30 years old.
The highest-profile case occurred in March 2016, when the Naval Prefecture reported that it shot and sank a Chinese fishing vessel and rescued the crew, after the vessel failed to obey repeated orders to stop.
“The border of the EEZ coincides with the edge of the Argentine continental shelf,” Krapovickas told IPS. “In this area, the ocean, due to its depth and the different marine currents, has abundant nutrients and there is a rich ecosystem, making it very easy to fish, especially Argentine shortfin squid (Illex argentinus), a species in high demand in the international market.”
“In the scientific community we have warned about this for years. But we have not managed to get anybody to do anything,” he added.
The Argentine State does not take action, but it knows where the fishing vessels are: since 2012, the National Institute for Fisheries Research and Development (Inidep) has been keeping track of them through satellite images from its headquarters in the port of Mar del Plata, 400 km south of Buenos Aires.
“It looks like a floating city. At around the 45th parallel south there is so much activity that sometimes it seems like they cover a bigger surface area than Buenos Aires,” computer engineer Ezequiel Cozzolino, who is in charge of the satellite system, told IPS.
“From mid December to June of the following year there are usually between 270 and 300 boats in the area. Eighty to ninety percent are jigging vessels, fishing only for squid. They fish at night, attracting squid with artificial lights,” he explained.
Marine conservation specialist Milko Schvartzman, who carries out his own satellite monitoring, said that sometimes there are more than 500 vessels.
“They are highly predatory of squid, which is one of the pillars of the marine ecosystem, because they are eaten by other species,” Schvartzman told IPS.
Schvartzman is working on a project for the protection of the South Atlantic for Oceans 5, an organisation linked to the foundation led by U.S. actor Leonardo Di Caprio.
The environmental organisation has denounced that the boats not only affect the marine environment but also violate human rights, as the crews sometimes work in slavery conditions.
There are no known studies on how these boats affect legal fishing in Argentina, which is a major source of foreign exchange, because most of the catch is exported.
According to official figures, seafood exports brought the country 1.978 billion dollars in 2017, and 1.724 billion dollars in 2016.
Schvartzman was one of the activists from European organisations who came in December to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires to publicly pressure for the elimination of subsidies for fishing practices that are destructive for the environment and small-scale fishers.
This is one of the targets within goal 14 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which addresses the sustainable use of the oceans.
This target sets out, by 2020, “to prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, eliminate subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and refrain from introducing new such subsidies.”
Schvartzman says that “all of the boats that fish inside the EEZ are subsidised by China, South Korea or Spain or other countries that years ago depleted their own fishing resources and, to keep these fishing fleets active, they send them to fish elsewhere.”
But the WTO has not adopted any measure against the fishing subsidies. “It was India that raised opposition in Buenos Aires, which is incomprehensible since that country is also a victim of these fishing fleets which poach their resources,” said Schvartzman.
In Argentina, this issue is also worrying fishing companies, some of which formed an NGO at the end of last year, which they named Organisation for the Protection of Resources in the Southwest Atlantic (Opras).
“Our aim is to get international organisations to regulate this issue that has to do with marine resources, but we need support from the Argentine government which we do not have today,” said Alan Mackern, president of Estremar, a Norwegian fishing company based in Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina.
Mackern told IPS that “what is happening cannot be allowed. Those of us who fish within the EEZ are subject to strict regulations and those that fish on the boundary do not meet standards and regulations and sell fish and shellfish on the market at lower prices, cuasing us harm.”
The companies are also concerned about a bill sent by the Argentine government to Congress to create marine protected areas within the EEZ.
“We have not been consulted. But marine fauna, logically, doesn’t know about limits, and we are concerned that fishing will be banned within the 200 nautical miles and it will end up generating more resources for those fishing outside,” said Mackern.
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