Oceana Finds Hundreds of ‘Hidden’ Chinese Vessels Pillaging Waters Off Argentina
Foreign Fishing Fleets Suspiciously Disappearing Along Argentina’s National Waters
Press Release Date: June 2, 2021
Oceana released a new analysis today that finds hundreds of foreign fishing vessels, primarily Chinese, pillaging the waters off Argentina and disappearing from public tracking systems. These distant-water fleets mainly fish for shortfin squid, which are vital to Argentina’s economy and the diet of numerous commercial and recreational species, such as tuna and swordfish.
Oceana analyzed the activity of fishing vessels along the border of Argentina’s national waters from January 1, 2018, to April 25, 2021, using Automatic Identification System (AIS) data from Global Fishing Watch (GFW),* an independent nonprofit founded by Oceana in partnership with Google and SkyTruth. AIS devices transmit information such as a vessel’s name, flag state, and location. Of the fishing visible on GFW, Oceana documented over 800 foreign vessels logging more than 900,000 total hours of apparent fishing.** The analysis also revealed that 69% of this fishing activity was conducted by more than 400 Chinese vessels. In comparison to the foreign fleets, 145 of Argentina’s fishing vessels conducted 9,269 hours of visible fishing in this area during the same period — less than 1% of the total amount.
“Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing threatens the health of the oceans. The vessels that disappear along the edge of the national waters of Argentina could be pillaging its waters illegally,” said Oceana’s deputy vice president of U.S. campaigns, Beth Lowell. “IUU fishing is wreaking havoc on our oceans, coastal communities, and people who depend on the oceans for their livelihoods. A recent study found the United States imported an estimated $2.4 billion worth of seafood derived from IUU fishing in 2019. The United States can take action to address IUU fishing by requiring that all seafood imports have catch documentation to demonstrate it was legally caught, implementing full-chain traceability, and making transparency a condition of import. AIS, when used continuously, can provide managers, governments, and the public more visibility of what is happening beyond the horizon and deter illegal activity. The United States and all governments should take action to ensure all seafood is safe, legally caught, responsibly sourced, and honestly labeled.”
As part of this analysis, Oceana documented more than 6,000 gap events, instances where AIS transmissions are not broadcast for more than 24 hours, which can indicate where vessels potentially disable their public tracking devices. These vessels were invisible for more than 600,000 total hours, hiding fishing vessel locations and masking potentially illegal behavior, such as crossing into Argentina’s national waters to fish. The Chinese fleet was responsible for 66% of these incidents, which could be linked to illegal activity. For example, in April 2020, approximately 100 squid jiggers, mostly Chinese-flagged, were allegedly caught fishing illegally in Argentina’s national waters, each with their public tracking devices apparently turned off. Interactions between the Argentine Coast Guard and suspected illegal fishing vessels have escalated to violence, with some deeming the conflict “a literal war.”
Other key findings:
- Of the fishing that occurred along Argentina’s national waters, four countries’ distant-water fleets were responsible for 95% of the visible fishing activity.
- Chinese vessels comprised the most fishing along Argentina’s national waters with over 400 vessels conducting 69% of the total visible fishing activity.
- Korean, Spanish, and Taiwanese vessels conducted 26% of the fishing activity, with nearly 200 vessels fishing for approximately 251,000 hours.
- Nearly 90% of the Spanish vessels that fished along Argentina’s national waters appeared to turn off their public tracking devices at least once, and Spanish vessels spent nearly twice as much time with AIS devices off as they did visibly fishing.
- Fifty-six percent of the vessels that appeared to have AIS gaps engaged in at-sea transshipment events. During transshipment, fishing vessels can transfer their catch to refrigerated cargo vessels. Transshipping at sea can be a weak link in the seafood supply chain, potentially allowing illegally caught fish to be mixed with legal catch.
- Of the vessels with AIS gaps, 31% of them visited the Port of Montevideo, Uruguay at the end of their trip. This port has allegedly been favored by vessels engaging in illegal activity.
- More than two-thirds of the vessels and over half of all the fishing (575,294 hours) can be attributed to squid jiggers (vessels with bright lights and hooks designed to catch squid), which were the most used fishing gear type.
- Trawlers (vessels that drag large, heavy nets to catch fish and other ocean life) accounted for much of the remaining fishing (255,455 hours).
“Our oceans need protection, not reckless fishing from China and other distant water fleets,” said Dr. Marla Valentine, Oceana’s illegal fishing and transparency campaign manager. “Fishing at this scale, under the radar, and without regard for laws and sustainability can have detrimental impacts on entire ecosystems, as well as the people and economies that depend on them. This is just one example of how unregulated distant water fishing fleets can take advantage of a lack of transparency and enforcement at sea. It has become increasingly clear that Chinese commercial fishing interests are far reaching and have no boundaries; the world cannot afford to ignore the massive impacts of fleets like this on our oceans. The constant use of AIS devices on all fishing vessels is essential for transparency at sea and traceability in the seafood supply chain.”
Argentina’s extensive coastline boasts a tremendous abundance and diversity of marine life, including more than 330 types of finfish, nearly 120 deep-sea species, and a variety of invertebrates. The country’s commercial fishing industry produces $2.7 billion in economic impact and constitutes 3.4% of its gross domestic product. This significant industry is driven by four species — shortfin squid, hake, red shrimp, and grenadier — which account for 75% of the country’s total catch. Shortfin squid is especially valuable, as it is the second-largest global squid fishery and half of the world’s catch comes from Argentina’s waters. Each year, the shortfin squid fishery generates an average of $597 million for South America’s economy and, in particularly favorable years, can generate nearly $2.4 billion. Shortfin squid have a rapid life cycle, only living and spawning for one year. Because these squid migrate far out to sea to reproduce, overfishing by distant-water fleets can have serious repercussions on populations for years to come. Shortfin squid is a key link in the food chain, so these population losses can be ecologically devastating as well.
To learn more about Oceana’s campaign to increase transparency at sea, please click here.
*Global Fishing Watch (GFW), a provider of open data for use in this article, is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing ocean governance through increased transparency of human activity at sea. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, which are not connected with or sponsored, endorsed or granted official status by GFW. By creating and publicly sharing map visualizations, data, and analysis tools, GFW aims to enable scientific research and transform the way our ocean is managed.
**Any and all references to “fishing” should be understood in the context of Global Fishing Watch’s (GFW) fishing detection algorithm, which is a best effort to determine “apparent fishing effort” based on vessel speed and direction data from the automatic identification system (AIS) collected via satellites and terrestrial receivers. As AIS data varies in completeness, accuracy, and quality, and the fishing detection algorithm is a statistical estimate of apparent fishing activity, it is possible that some fishing effort is not identified and, conversely, that some fishing effort identified is not fishing. For these reasons, GFW qualifies all designations of vessel fishing effort, including synonyms of the term “fishing effort,” such as “fishing” or “fishing activity,” as “apparent” rather than certain. Any/all GFW information about “apparent fishing effort” should be considered an estimate and must be relied upon solely at your own risk. GFW is taking steps to make sure fishing effort designations are as accurate as possible.