Stealth plunder of Argentinian waters raises fears over marine monitoring

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An “armada” of more than 100 fishing vessels are illegally plundering south Atlantic waters close to Argentina, environmental groups say, raising concerns that the coronavirus lockdown has weakened already fragile marine protections.

The incursion of the ships, mostly from east Asia, appears to have been carried out by stealth. The vessels waited until nightfall, shut down satellite tracking systems in coordination and then moved into the squid-rich waters of Argentina’s exclusive economic zone, Greenpeace said.

The ships were detected in Mar del Plata on the radar of a legal vessel, which reported the incident to coastguard officials and fishing authorities.

By one estimate, the ships – each capable of taking 50 tonnes per day – could in less than three weeks exceed the Argentinian fleet’s quota for the entire season.

The incident has prompted questions in parliament and underlined how commercial interests are trying to capitalise on the relaxation of environmental monitoring and enforcement during the pandemic.

“Most people think that the global pandemic means that nature is finally having a chance to heal. But this is not what we are seeing in the unregulated waters of the South Atlantic ocean,” said Luisina Vueso, from Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign.

“Just one look at this shocking radar image shows you that this armada … is taking advantage of the lack of governance in the high seas to empty our oceans of life.”

Similar concerns have been raised in other areas of the world. In the Amazon, deforestation is accelerating and more illegal miners are invading indigenous territories following the Brazilian government’s admission that it would have fewer rangers on the ground.

On the savannahs of east Africa, conservation groups warn of a rise in wildlife poaching. And in the US, oil companies have lobbied to develop wells inside national parks and for the criminalisation of pipeline protesters.

The oceans pose an even greater worry, environmental groups say, because even before the pandemic there was very little regulation of fishing and mining in international waters. This is the least patrolled domain in the world. Monitoring has declined further since the Covid-19 outbreak.

This month the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd reluctantly suspended its campaign to protect the critically endangered vaquita porpoise in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California because it was unable to secure fuel due to the pandemic.

Industrial tuna fishing companies have persuaded maritime organisations to remove onboard monitors, reduce port inspections and loosen trans-shipment requirements.

The Canadian government has followed several countries in removing observers from all fishing vessels until the end of May, which means no oversight of what is caught and discarded.

This has alarmed ocean conservationists and some of the more responsible fishing companies. The International Seafood Sustainability Foundation said the lower level of surveillance would “open the door to increased illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and in doing so could undermine the recovery and resilience of many important fish stocks globally.”

Frederic Le Manach, the scientific director of the ocean protection group Bloom Association, said fishing fleets around the world were pushing for fewer restraints on their activities, which could have disastrous implications.

“The pandemic is a good excuse for industrial fisheries because without observers you can do exactly what you want,” he said. “But it would be a major mistake to allow weaker regulations at a time of crisis because once you do that it is hard to go back. If anything we need stronger monitoring during this crisis. This could be the moment when we put CCTV cameras onboard every fishing ship. This would be a major step forward.”

Fishing fleets are lobbying for weaker rules so they can compete on a level playing field. The nationalist undercurrent was apparent in the UK recently when five European supertrawlers entered British waters. This is legal but it provoked accusations that they were taking advantage of the lockdown, because there were fewer such vessels this time last year.

Vueso said the worsening free-for-all showed the need for a global ocean treaty that would create more sanctuaries and coordinate management of the high seas and punishment of violators.

“The solution is not to just add more patrolling to Argentine waters if hundreds of vessels from different nationalities are operating illegally in the area,” he said. “A strong treaty would also increase international collaboration to crack down on vessels like these that even during a global lockdown will seek to take advantage of any opportunity to plunder our ocean.”

In the tuna-rich waters of the coral triangle in south-east Asia, illegal fishing has long been rife, and locals expect it to grow in the pandemic. Last month Indonesian maritime authorities seized three Philippine and two Vietnamese illegal fishing vessels.

“We are prepared for any increase in illegal vessels operating in [Indonesian waters] amid the spread of Covid-19. That is why we are not decreasing our operations as illegal fishing is still rampant,” the government said.

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