CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee — The Pacific Ocean is the world’s most fertile fishing ground, making environmental impacts in the area particularly concerning. A substantial presence of Chinese fishing fleets in the southern Pacific Ocean raised concerns about illegal fishing in South America. Illegal fishing operations lead to fish population decline, loss of biodiversity and destruction of marine habitats. All of these combined factors result in productivity decreases in the fishing industry, which has rippling negative impacts. Multiple countries have joined together to combat illegal fishing in South America to protect local economies, individual livelihoods and marine ecosystems’ longevity.
Fishing Activity in South America
After depleting domestic fishing sources, Chinese fishing fleets moved to the waters of the South Pacific off the west coast of South America. Between July and August 2020, a fleet of nearly 300 Chinese vessels “logged more than 73,000 hours” of fishing efforts just outside of Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) near the Galapagos Islands. This amounted to Chinese fishing making up 99% of the fishing activity in the area.
Other countries, including Peru and Chile, have accused the same fleet of entering their EEZs. In fact, some vessels in the fleet have also been “accused of turning off GPS trackers” to fish in protected waters illegally and without regulation. The fleet mostly pursues squid and a fishing association in Peru claimed the fleet illegally caught 50,000 tons of squid in Peruvian waters.
Concerns About Illegal Fishing
China’s fishing fleet performs the largest share of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing globally. Research suggests that around 183 vessels in China’s distant-water fishing (DWF) fleet have been participating in IUU fishing. As such, the presence of this fleet in the South Pacific concerns South American countries.
IUU fishing leads to substantial economic losses for the government, individuals’ livelihoods and businesses in the fish supply chain. Developed countries are especially vulnerable to IUU fishing because of a lack of resources to effectively combat and monitor fishing.
An estimated “24% of Pacific Ocean’s marine catch is unreported every year.” Of this, 50% is illegally traded, causing $4.3 to $8.3 billion in direct revenue losses. Local fishing activities cannot compete with Chinese fishing efforts, which causes individual livelihoods and local economies to suffer. By taking income away from local markets and fishermen, IUU fishing worsens poverty. While Chinese fleets have the ability to move on to other waters, local fishermen and operations do not. Instead, livelihoods are further threatened by the long-term impacts of IUU fishing.
Efforts to Combat Illegal Fishing
There has been wide international criticism regarding the illegal fishing activities in South America. In response, China has implemented several new policies and regulations. China has now committed to a stronger stance on sustainability, ocean protection and compliance with international fishing regulations. China updated its Distant Water Fishing Management Regulations in 2020. Lastly, China banned squid fishing during reproductive seasons to allow the squid population to recover. Whether or not these new regulations are enforced has yet to be seen.
South American countries have also set up efforts to tackle this issue. Panama, Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Costa Rica and Brazil supported increased transparency and monitoring through open data. Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia issued a joint statement announcing a greater collaboration in combating IUU fishing through information sharing. The U.S. has also offered support in the form of resources and expertise. The U.S. Coast Guard has provided South American countries almost 50 boats since 2015. Furthermore, it plans to send 15 training teams to the region. This will help improve countries’ law enforcement and search and rescue capabilities.
As more countries recognize the harmful effects of IUU fishing, efforts to combat illegal fishing in South America will continue to improve. By making these improvements, locals will be able to sustainably manage fishing in their waters.
– Camden Eckler