In June this year the Argentine coastguard captured a Chinese boat fishing illegally within Argentine waters, the second time this has occurred in six months.
This is far from an isolated case: Argentine observers say Chinese boats are guilty of widespread illegal fishing, often being facilitated by corrupt officials within the Argentine government and coastguard.
According to the Prefectura Nacional, the Argentine Coast Guard, the Chinese boat caught on June 17 was detected fishing within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Argentina, and once apprehended ‘it was discovered that it was carrying 180 tonnes of squid.’
Yet sources have told chinadialogue that this boat was almost certainly not acting alone, and that small flotillas of up to fifteen to twenty Chinese boats regularly cross into Argentine waters to fish illegally.
These boats are mostly searching for squid, which is in high demand in China. Squid forms an important part of the local food chain, as they provide food for whales, larger fish, penguins, and other carnivores. Fishing vessels in the South Atlantic pull out an estimated 300,000 tons of squid a year.
Squid in the area are mostly located within the EEZ of the Falkland Islands, which is heavily patrolled by British warships, and on the shelf front that lies just within Argentina’s own 200-mile maritime border. Argentina has only eight large ships policing its borders, and so is seen as an easier target for Chinese boats.
Corruption fuelling illegal fishing
Argentine journalist Roberto Maturana says that the boats often stay outside of Argentine waters during the day, before moving in to fish during the night. When they do so, they ensure to protect themselves against any possible apprehension.
‘When a group of Chinese boats come to fish illegally, there is always one with extremely advanced radar technology, that can detect when the coastguard are coming. The patrol boats often come from the north, the warning goes out, and all the Chinese boats escape,’ he says.
Maturana also says that one of the fishing vessels often receives advanced warning from corrupt officials within the Prefectura about when the patrols are leaving port, giving them further time to escape. ‘It only takes one corrupt official to ensure that these boats are never captured’, he says.
But the forces at work that allow excessive Chinese fishing to happen in Argentine waters may go well beyond the small time corruption of coast-guard officials. Professor Daniel Pauly, who recently published a study highlighting the extent of unreported Chinese fishing around the globe, says that often the Chinese sign agreements with governments that permit their boats to fish under the flag of that country within that country’s maritime borders.
Roberto Maturana confirms that Argentine boat owners lend their boats to Chinese captains who then fish with an all-Chinese crew, with a boat painted with the white hull of Argentina rather than the red of China.
He says that in Argentina, these arrangements are facilitated by corrupt officials at the government sub-department of fishing, responsible for granting fishing licenses. ‘Often officials will issue an Argentine license to two different Chinese boats. So whilst one is in port, the other will be out fishing’.
Abuses of this kind have already brought China into conflict with local populations and fishermen in West Africa, where China lands an estimated two thirds of its global catch. The true global impact of China’s fishing is difficult to evaluate, however, as it either does not keep, or chooses not to release, full information on its global catch.
‘In various public statements they have admitted to having a fleet that supposedly captures 1-1.5 million tonnes of fish annually. But we estimate that one third of fish is brought to China, one third is landed locally, and one third is sold trans-shipment on the international market, and China is only reporting on what is brought there,’ says Professor Pauly.
Chinese wary of reputation
Pauly believes that the Chinese are nevertheless keen to contain many of the abuses taking place by their own ships on international waters. ‘China would not want to be the outlier like Japan has been. They will not do things that are more onerous than the mainstream, but they will not want their ships breaking agreements with other nations.’
In the case of Argentina, China enjoys strong cooperation on a number of other economic and political matters. ‘For China, Argentina has various attractive elements that affect China’s food and energy security. The primary materials that Argentina possesses, in particular its soy, are very important for China’, says Eduardo Daniel Oviedo, an expert in Sino-Argentine relations.
Oviedo says that under the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina has enjoyed even stronger political ties with China, and that there would likely be an open dialogue following the capture of the Chinese boat in June.
But however cosy the relationship might be, it is obvious who is the senior partner in the pair. ‘It’s clear the relationship is totally asymmetrical’, says Oviedo. ‘One can see this reflected in all aspects such as the economic, military and nuclear power that China has.’
This imbalance has been laid bare in the past. In 2010, Argentina briefly imposed tariffs on Chinese goods entering the country, having accused the superpower of ‘dumping’ products in their market. China responded in turn by completely halting their imports of Argentine soy.
After a few weeks of being left without its main trading partner for its important exported product, Argentina reversed its tariff decision. The experience showed up Argentina’s inability to influence China with any sort of ‘hard diplomacy’, and its subsequent need to rely largely instead on softer tactics.
Will the squid lose out?
This is yet another factor tying the hands of the Argentine coast guard, says Roberto Maturana. If the coastguard really wanted to capture Chinese boats, it would operate a pincer movement against them, rather than just sending out one patrol ship, and would fire warning shots across the bows of the boats that refuse to halt.
‘If they did this they could catch five or ten boats rather than just one; but because of the diplomatic difficulties this would cause, they don’t’, says Maturana. ‘I think the message will have gone down, from the head of the coast guard, to the captain of the patrol, ‘if you really have no other option, capture a Chinese boat”, and that is what happened.’
Soft diplomacy is the only option that Argentina has, and the Prefectura Nacional has said that it has been in contact with the Chinese embassy in Buenos Aires. Whether the problem is addressed in a serious way will depend on how China balances its need for squid against the potential damage to relations with Argentina if illegal practices continue, says Oviedo.