Tag Archives: illegal fishing

Hundreds of Chinese vessels suspected of illegal fishing along Argentina’s waters

Hundreds of foreign fishing vessels, mainly Chinese, are “pillaging” the waters off Argentina and disappearing from public tracking systems, according to a report by the marine NGO Oceana. These vessels mainly fish for shortfin squid (which are important to Argentina’s economy) as well as numerous species such as tuna and swordfish.

The foreign vessels seen from the air near Argentina’s waters. Image credit: Enrique Piñeyro

Oceana, a nonprofit ocean conservation organization, reviewed the activity of fishing vessels along the border of Argentina’s national waters from January 1, 2018, to April 25, 2021, using a system called Automatic Identification System (AIS).

During this period, Oceana documented over 800 foreign vessels that spent more than 900,000 total hours of apparent fishing within 20 nautical miles of the invisible border between Argentina’s national waters and the high seas. Almost 70% of this fishing activity was conducted by around 400 Chinese vessels, the recent report showed.

“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,” Oceana’s deputy vice president of U.S. campaigns, Beth Lowell, said in a statement. “IUU fishing is wreaking havoc on our oceans and coastal communities.”

As part of this analysis, Oceana documented more than 6,000 such gap events, instances where AIS transmissions are not broadcast for more than 24 hours. This could indicate periods where vessels potentially disable their public tracking devices, hiding their location and potentially masking illegal behavior. 

Chinese vessels were responsible for 66% of these incidents. For example, in April 2020, approximately 100 squid jiggers, mostly Chinese-flagged, were allegedly caught fishing illegally in Argentina’s waters. Interactions between the Argentine Coast Guard and suspected illegal fishing vessels have escalated to violence over the last few years.

“Our oceans need protection, not reckless fishing from China and other distant water fleets,” Marla Valentine, Oceana’s illegal fishing and transparency campaign manager, said in a statement. “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.”

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. 

Image credit: Oceana

This significant industry is driven by four species — shortfin squid (Illex illecebrosus), hake (Gadiformes), red shrimp (Pleoticus muelleri) and grenadier (Macrouridae) — 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. 

For Oceana, addressing this situation requires countries enforcing a mandatory use of the AIS devices on all fishing vessels. These systems are essential for transparency and accountability. At the same time, countries should have a public and current list of all foreign and domestic vessels authorized to fish in their national waters and implement further control at their ports. 

Pirate attacks are more frequent in areas with harmful fishing practices

A new study finds that pirate attacks occur more frequently in areas where destructive or illegal fishing practices happen, and enforcing sustainable fishing practices could eliminate the incentive for piracy.

A Japanese patrol boat and an illegal Chinese fishing boat. Image credits: 人事院.

In the broadest sense, piracy is any violent or predatory act committed by the crew or the passengers of a ship on the high seas. It’s a problem many may not even be aware of, is still a bane in some parts of the world, and it’s not just a local problem — it has international consequences as well.

“Negative global impacts consist of increasing the costs of (and therefore deterring) international maritime trade through loss of cargo, higher protection or insurance costs, re-routings, ransoms, etc. Locally, piracy can exacerbate corruption, lawlessness, and overall criminal activity including drug smuggling, human trafficking, etc.,” says lead author Raj Desai in an email to ZME Science.

Piracy is strongly associated with weak governance. When regulation is either missing or ineffective, it favors the creation of pirate groups. Enforcing laws on the high seas is never an easy task, but for developing countries with limited resources, it’s an even tougher challenge.

In the new study, Desai and George Shambaugh of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. found that piracy is linked to something else: illegal or harmful fishing practices.

“Weak governance and state fragility definitely create a favorable environment for piracy, particularly if that weakness leads to poorly enforcement within territorial waters. However, we find that harmful and illegal fishing practices–in particular, practices that lead to high bycatch or that are habitat-destroying–exert a first-order, independent effect on the likelihood of piracy.”

The researchers suspected some potential connection between small-scale fishers and piracy. It makes sense: for them, harmful and illegal fishing (often conducted by foreign industrial fishing fleets) can be a direct threat to their livelihoods leading them down the road of piracy, says Desai.

“Indeed, the species that artisanal fisheries rely upon are often species that are part of the “bycatch” from industrial fishing. Moreover, small-scale fisheries are a major source of employment and income to coastal (and sometimes even inland) communities already facing vulnerabilities due to, e.g., climate change. “

“In addition, fishermen have skills valued by pirate gangs. Consequently, fishers may themselves turn to piracy both to smooth income losses and to deter foreign fleets.”

Maritime piracy, 2005-2014. Piracy incidents from the consolidated ASAM-GISIS database, overlaid with a 1° × 1° gridded-cell layer. A: 2005-2009. B: 2010-2014. Image credits: Desai et al, PLOS ONE 2021

Sea Mafia

To put their hypothesis to the test, the researchers divided the world’s oceans into 1 degree-by-1 degree cells, looking at links between illegal fishing practices and piracy incidents between 2005 and 2014. Their analysis also accounted for the increased likelihood of piracy in some locations due to proximity to areas already experiencing piracy.

While establishing a causal relationship is difficult, there does seem to be a link between illegal or harmful fishing practices and piracy. Greater incidence of piracy was associated unreported and unregulated fishing, but not with coastal drought or population density.

It is reasonable that, threatened by illegal industrial fishing, small-scale fishers take to piracy to defend their livelihoods. This bears some similarities to other, land-based practices, where illegal practices spur other reactive illegal practices (such as the Mafia). Whether or not this is actually lucrative for fishers is not clear at this point.

“As with all illegal activities, piracy can also increase the wealth in areas that benefit from pirates fencing their goods or distributing rents. Opinion is divided with respect to how much pirates engage in “Robin Hood”-like behavior and, at present, we do not have much information on the microeconomics of maritime piracy. However there is some evidence that Somali piracy may have boosted economies in certain coastal areas. Moreover, piracy may also function–similar to the Mafia–as a substitute for state enforcement of fishing rights, where actual state enforcement is weak or missing.”

Breaking the pattern

The problem, just like with the Mafia, is that the appeal of the practice is clear — if your livelihood is threatened by illegal vessels and no one comes in to help, the appeal of a local pirate force can become appealing. If fishermen are turning to piracy to deter foreign fleets then if we truly want to reduce piracy, addressing illegal fishing seems like a good way to go about things. Regulating illegal fishing is a good first step, but hardly enough.

“Most bilateral and multilateral efforts have focused principally on anti-piracy enforcement measures, namely interdiction. For example, the Southern African Development Community’s maritime security strategy is heavily focused on increasing naval presence, joint patrols, military exercises, and surveillance. This is certainly vital, but much more should be done. Additionally, more livelihoods-focused efforts in vulnerable coastal communities is required.”

“What is often missing from these efforts is some integrated approach to limiting the appeal of piracy—by policing illegal, unreported, or unregulated fishing, as well as destructive practices that can deplete fish stocks.”

Desai recalls that something similar happened in Somalia. Somali piracy has essentially accomplished its purpose: driving away foreign fishing fleets. Similar trends were observed in other parts of Africa. But after piracy dropped and fish stocks recovered, foreign fleets returned, which led to an uptick in piracy.

“This suggests that piracy will likely be a cyclical phenomenon unless the pattern can be broken,” Desai concludes.

Journal Reference:  Desai RM, Shambaugh GE (2021) Measuring the global impact of destructive and illegal fishing on maritime piracy: A spatial analysis. PLoS ONE 16(2): e0246835.

How albatrosses could help fight illegal fishing

The magnificent birds could help researchers pinpoint the location of illegal fishing vessels.

The majestic albatross could help fight illegal fishing.

The world is not fishing sustainably. Across the oceans, fish stocks have shrunk and collapsed, and a recent study found that if fishing rates continue unchanged, all the world’s fisheries will collapse by the year 2048.

Illegal fishing makes up a large part of that problem. It is believed illegal and unregulated fishing account for up to 30% of total catches. The problem is, enforcing regulations is difficult. The oceans are vast and policing them has proven a gargantuan task.

The first difficult step is detecting illegal vessels. There’s just no easy way to see which vessels go where — and this is where lazy albatrosses can help.

Albatrosses are majestic birds, having the largest wingspan of any living bird: up to 3.7 m (12 ft). They scour the seas searching for fish, squid, and krill, flying up to 16,000 kilometres (9,900 mi) without landing. They’re also opportunistic, not only hunting but also scavenging when they can.

We’ve known for quite a while that albatrosses also like to follow fishing vessels around. They see this as a “free lunch” — a way to eat something without going through the effort of hunting.

This makes them ideal ocean sentinels.

In a new study, researchers show how albatrosses can be used to help monitor illegal fishing vessels. The idea is pretty simple: tag some birds with GPS trackers and radar loggers. When the loggers receive a radar signal (coming from a boat), you can see if the boat is legally registered, and if not — boom, you’ve found an illegal fishing boat. It’s a simple but very efficient idea, and the loggers are small enough that they don’t cause any real discomfort to the birds.

This was put to the test by researchers from France and New Zealand, as a part of the Ocean Sentinel program.

The researchers equipped almost 170 albatrosses with GPS loggers for 6 months, monitoring more than 47 million square kilometers of the Southern Ocean. When they looked at the data, researchers found that more than a third of the fishing vessels operating in international waters were illegal.

The method is remarkably cheap and efficient and can cover fast swaths of the ocean almost free of cost. As an added bonus, the data could also be used independently for animal conservation.

Already, similar equipment is being tested in New Zealand and Hawaii for other marine species, like sharks and sea turtles. If this technology could also be easily adapted to avoid any discomfort for the animals, this could mark a very important step in monitoring and combating illegal fishing.