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How Argentina Got Hooked On Overfishing — And How To Set Herself Free

Trawling in Argentine waters is wiping out marine life in the southern Atlantic. Whatever the money stakes, Argentina must expand those territorial waters where all fishing is banned.

Dock workers and fishermen unloads the day's catch.

Dock workers and fishermen unloads the day's catch, Mar del Plata, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Ryan Noble via ZUMA
Gonzalo Sánchez

BUENOS AIRES — Very few people know about trawl fishing, the chief method used to fish, indiscriminately and wastefully, in Argentine territorial waters. It has been used for over 50 years to catch hake (halibut) and prawn, two of the three species that constitute the local industry (the third being squid, which is caught another way).

Bottom trawling, if this is happening at the seafloor level, is "non-selective," and uses a vast, heavy net, 120 meters long and 45 wide, with a "mouth" that can reach 12 meters in height.

The monstrous contraption is submerged and dragged by a boat on the surface, engulfing everything in its path: fish, crustaceans, molluscs, mammals, etc. This means dragging up, and killing, all life in a particular zone just for hake and prawn.

Everything that rises dies before it is loaded onto these floating factories. Rays and sharks emerge as half-crushed remains, and are thrown back into the sea. Within minutes, a place teeming with life is turned into a graveyard.

Power of exports

In Argentina, more than 90% of the commercial fish that is caught is exported.

Fishing is the country's eighth industry in terms of hard currency earnings, bringing in $2 billion in 2021 according to official figures. Every year, the sector exports between 400 and 500,000 tons of fish, notably to Spain, China and the United States, with more than 80% of that being hake, prawns and squid. These are the "sea delicacies" (delicias del mar) your waiter serves you if you order a prawn dish or fried calamari in distant Madrid or Barcelona.

A lot of baby fish or prawns, which have yet to reproduce, are also caught in this fishing. They are of no commercial value, but die anyway, which means trawl fishing is altering the entire reproductive chain. Between Jan. 1 and March 28 this year, trawl fishing caught more than 100,000 tons of fish, according to the Agriculture ministry's undersecretariat for fishing.

But the figures include only declared species, hake and prawn, and say nothing of everything that is discarded. They say nothing about an ecocidal process of which most Argentines know nothing. The Patagonian Sea has 1,400 species of zooplankton, 900 species of molluscs, 700 vertebrate species, 50 of marine mammals and 80 species of birds. According to the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea and Areas of Influence, industrial activity is threatening 36 vertebrate species here.

Photo of boats and kayaks in a port.

Anniversary of the passing of Law 1.355, which regulated salmon farming in Tierra del Fuego in the city of Ushuaia.

sinazulnohayverde via Instagram.

Out of sight, out of mind

In contrast to razing forests, or forest and wetland fires, the impact of trawl fishing is invisible. It is difficult to take pictures of the sea bed. But as a British journalist has said, trawling is like bulldozing a tree to pick its apples. You could, surely, pick them another way! And yet it is legal. The industry recognizes the problem, but the fleets keep coming as authorities look away.

Diana Friedrich, coordinator of the Patagonia Azul project, which seeks a marine protection zone, says "Argentina made an international commitment in 2010 to protect 10% of its sea before 2020. We never did. In 2022, it made another commitment to protect 30% by 2030, but there is no roadmap yet on doing this in the next seven years. The fishing sector insists that permanent closed zones (zonas de veda permanente) are effectively protected zones, but the fishing ban (there) is only for hake, and prawn is fished the same way, which amounts to the same thing. The closed areas are not protected areas."

She adds, "Our guideline should not be percentages but the regeneration of biodiversity. If we know that shark numbers have already dropped by 80% at least, clearly the closed areas are of no use. The only two protected marine areas we have are in a zone where there was practically no fishing."

Maximum profits

Sharks are disappearing as they are engulfed in the nets. "It doesn't occur to anyone that this is a bad thing," says Lucía Castro, who runs a defense organization for the Argentine Sea. "It isn't being studied. Nobody has demanded an environmental impact study for trawling. In fact nobody is asking the fishing firms anything at all. The federal fishing laws pay lip service to the environment and forbid a whole lot of issues, but not trawl fishing," she says.

The sector is fishing its way toward self-destruction.

There has been very little study of the activity's impact on the sea bed off the Argentine coast, so nobody knows precisely the state of the worked "fields," as trawled surfaces may be termed. They are not unlike a deforested surface. While trawling is legal, discarding dead fish is not, though the norm is rarely if ever respected. There are countless, anonymous testimonies by ship workers of dead fish and wildlife simply being thrown back in. In principle, you are not to throw anything into the sea, but ships do, constantly. There is nobody to check! In April 2023, hundreds of plastic crates washed onto the beach in the province of Chubut, stacking up on the sand.

The public found out when an activist Yago Lange took pictures of sea lions waddling among the crates. The Chubut provincial government cleaned up but clearly, fishing boats do dump things into the sea and not just dead species.

Another "discarded" problem is ghost nets or nets abandoned at sea. They keep fishing, inadvertently, as wildlife gets caught and eventually dies. Castro's organization, Sin Azul No Hay Verde,wants Argentines to know at least that all this is happening. Few even know that a third of their national territory is sea, and fewer still, including among state officials, know what is going on in that part of the territory. The Argentine Sea is replete with natural resources that are threatened. If things go on as they are, expect the degradation and decline of all those resources. Put another way, the sector is fishing its way toward self-destruction.

Fishing can be selective, says Castro, but "the industry wants maximum profits. At the scale this is practiced, this type of fishing can never be sustainable. The logic is currently economic."

Dolphins leaping out of the sea.

Dolphins in the sea near Camarones, a town located by the sea in Argentine Patagonia.

rewilding_argentina via Instagram

A solution: marine parks

Protected marine areas in principle forbid "all extractive activity," says Castro, adding, "less than 3% of the ocean consists of protected areas where fishing is banned. There are three such areas in the country, at the southernmost tip of the continental platform. This is just 8% of the Argentine Sea. You need protected areas on these productive fronts, so marine fauna can regenerate."

Protected marine areas ban all industrial fishing and extractive activities.

Environmentalists held an Atlantic Mission conference in the port of Comodoro Rivadavia on June 24, to discuss ways of protecting the South Atlantic. The gathering included experts from the public research agency CONICET, visitors from Mexico and Panama, activists, environment ministry officials, politicians, marine biologists, and a Clarín correspondent. An example of what might be done in Argentina was given by Shirley Binder, who contributed to Panama's bold decision in early 2023 to protect more than half of its territorial waters. Panama thus turned 54.33% of its exclusive economic zone into a protected area. With political will, Argentina might do something similar.

Binder told the conference "we managed to ban fishing in half of our sea, certainly. But without political resolve, activism was useless. Separately, once the area is declared [protected], we then need auditing, patrols and the means to implement the decisions. The effects were immediate."

Experts have touted creating protected marine areas where all industrial fishing and extractive activities are banned. This is a recognized, scientific tool to assure the protection and conservation of a wide range of species and their habitats. These are places where wildlife and plants, which in turn assure the health of the seas, can live and reproduce.

The essential debate is around money, as we saw before ahead of the ban on salmon farming in Tierra del Fuego. Why should a country in dire need of hard currency forego a profitable activity, officials protested? The same debate is inevitable if the country is to tackle the problems of mass-scale fishing. For now, nobody has proposed a change of methods but ahead of any changes, activists want strict controls and precise auditing of industrial fishing activity, and a review of their worst practices. That would be a first step in practice.

Presently, all we have is increasing awareness and concern on land — and a free-for-all at sea.

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