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Green Or Gone

Tracking The Asian Fishing "Armada" That Sucks Up Tons Of Seafood Off Argentina's Coast

A brightly-lit flotilla of fishing ships has reappeared in international waters off the southern coast of Argentina as it has annually in recent years for an "industrial harvest" of thousands of tons of fish and shellfish.

Photo of dozens of crab traps

An estimated 500 boats gather annually off the coast of Patagonia

Claudio Andrade

BUENOS AIRES — The 'floating city' of industrial fishing boats has returned, lighting up a long stretch of the South Atlantic.

Recently visible off the coast of southern Argentina, aerial photographs showed the well-lit armada of some 500 vessels, parked 201 miles offshore from Comodoro Rivadavia in the province of Chubut. The fleet had arrived for its vast seasonal haul of sea 'products,' confirming its annual return to harvest squid, cod and shellfish on a scale that activists have called an environmental blitzkrieg.

In principle the ships are fishing just outside Argentina's exclusive Economic Zone, though it's widely known that this kind of apparent "industrial harvest" does not respect the territorial line, entering Argentine waters for one reason or another.

For some years now, activists and organizations like Greenpeace have repeatedly denounced industrial-style fishing as exhausting marine resources worldwide and badly affecting regional fauna, even if the fishing outfits technically manage to evade any crackdown by staying in or near international waters.

The frontier can be as narrow as either side of a big wave, and is rarely able to prevent those that drift into Argentina's national waters.

Legal but immoral

The first sign of the flotilla came last week from a Twitter account specializing in flying activities, which showed pictures of a bright swathe floating on the horizon, which gave an idea of the size of the fleet consisting mostly of vessels from China, Taiwan, South Korea and Spain.

The ships extract around 4,000 tons of squid alone.

The photographer compared them to "a city in the middle of the ocean," while other Twitter users responded with similar images of what one called a luminous "stain."

The ships work around the clock in international waters, extracting around 4,000 tons of squid alone, according to figures from the Fishing Industry Joint Chambers of Argentina.

Factory fishing ships can perform an entire cycle of activities prior to merchandising, including capture, fileting and freezing. The product is then taken to ports in Uruguay and Chile whence it is shipped to consumer countries. The 'products' in this case include squid, hake, black hake, prawns, southern cod and clam.

Photo of dozens of boats parked 201 miles off the coast of Comodoro Rivadavia

The so-called "armada," 201 miles off the coast of Comodoro Rivadavia


Fishing for solutions

Speaking to Clarín, Luisina Vueso, coordinator of the Greenpeace oceans campaign, called the fleets "floating freezers" that end up violating protected waters as "trawling is not selective. In this biological corridor there are orcas, whales, elephant seals, sea lions and dolphins. They're all netted."

Countries must work together on new treaties to regulate fishing practices in the open sea.

Their crews are forced to operate in harsh conditions, working 12-hour shifts either on deck or in the hold, for relatively low wages (around $1,000 a month). They usually work for stints that last between three and six months.

A commercial sailor who has worked on a big fishing ship told Clarin: "you never really stop working on a ship, because even if you go to bed or stop for a coffee, you're on board and available for months at a time."

Argentina's Maritime Spaces Law (of 1991) establishes an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) spreading out 200 nautical miles from the coast. Beyond it are international waters.

José Aguilar, the Chubut Fishing Secretary, says the massive fleet becomes an issue every year in squid harvesting season, but as its activities are beyond EEZ, authorities have little recourse. "W cannot do anything other than state our position against it," he said. "This is fishing that is legal, but barely, using an invasive technique on a resource that naturally moves" into these waters. The ships' lights, he pointed out, 'trick' squid into moving toward them.

Argentinian national authorities are aware of such ruthless fishing methods, but are focused on protecting its territorial waters. The solution, Aguilar says, is that countries must work together on new treaties to regulate fishing practices in the open sea.

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