The Price of a Fish: Illegal Fishing and the Consequences for Latin America

“The ocean is like a checking account where everybody withdraws but nobody makes a deposit.”–Enrique Sala, National Geographic

With the UN Food and Agriculture Organization stating that 70 percent of the world’s fish population is in crisis and with coastal and island countries relying on fish for 70 percent of their food, the maritime politics of how to control and distribute access to fish have increasingly grown in importance. Nowhere has the importance of naval politics been demonstrated more than in Latin America.

Over the last year, China has steadily increased its naval presence in Latin American waters. In August, an Ecuadorian Coast Guard ship detained the Chinese vessel, Fu Yang Yu Leng 999 within the Galapagos Islands Marine Reserve. According to Ecuador’s Ministry of Defense, the Chinese fleet around Ecuador may number more than 300 vessels.  In March 2016, the Argentine Coast Guard discovered a Chinese fleet in Argentine territorial waters. Argentine security ships were sent and the Argentine Coast Guard shot at the Lu Yan Yuan Yu in order to prevent it from escaping to international waters and in response, the vessel attempted to ram into Coast Guard vessels to escape. In 2015, the Chilean navy stopped several Chinese vessels that were fishing in the Bio Bio part of its exclusive economic zone.  In December 2016, Peruvian media sources noted that the large fleets of Asian nations such as China had gradually increased their presence in Peru’s territorial waters.  As is evident, Chinese fishing vessels have steadily increased their influence in Latin American waters.  

With a recognition of the widespread problem of overfishing, one should also understand the Chinese motivations for entering into Latin American territorial waters. In the first place, Chinese vessels seek to significantly increase their access to fish. With rapidly increasing domestic demand for fish, Chinese fishing vessels have had to enter the territorial waters of other countries in order to meet such demand. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that China will account for 38% of global fish consumption by 2030. With the rising prices of fish such as salmon and with the value of the global fish trade rising $150 billion in this year alone, the incentives to do everything necessary to gain access to fishing supplies have only increased. The Boston Consulting Group notes that salmon producers have netted gains of 45 to 60 percent since 2012. Therefore, massive demand for fish has contributed to the incentives for Chinese fishing vessels to invade the territorial waters of Latin American nations.

Furthermore, lax law enforcement by the Chinese government has contributed to the problem of invasions of maritime sovereignty. While China has tough laws against illegal fishing, enforcement fails because the authorities see excessive fishing as essential to the livelihoods of fishermen. Indeed, not only does the Chinese government fail to deter illegal fishing, it actively encourages it. The Chinese government often directly subsidizes those expeditions. According to Greenpeace, 80 percent of the operating income of the income of China’s distant water fishing industry, which refers to fishing fleets that operate in the Exclusive Economic Zones of other nations, comes from government fuel subsidies. Without such government subsidies, such expansions in illegal fishing may not have occurred. For instance, while Fujian and Shandong’s distant water fishing fleets increased 149 percent and 232 percent respectively from 2012 to 2014, their product values increased by only 63 percent and 77 percent respectively. Thus, one cannot justify the expansion of the distant water fishing fleets by appealing to the economic value of such fleets independent of government subsidies. Without such government subsidies, the incentives to engage in distant water fishing would change significantly.

However, while Chinese distant water fleets fish for domestic consumption, China alone does not bear responsibility for this problem. According to the Wilson Center at Princeton University, China exports most of its high-value species and half of its overall catch to the European Union, Japan, and the United States. Thus, responsibility extends beyond China to the other nations that financially support illegal fishing.

Indeed, Chinese illegal fishing has negatively impacted Latin American economies. For instance, Chinese industrial fishing fleets have increased their presence in the oceans around Peru and Chile to fish for jumbo flying squid, which constitutes an important Peruvian export. Similarly, because of the negative economic impacts, Chinese overfishing has prompted non-violent protests around the Chinese Embassy in Quito and in Santa Cruz Island. Specifically, the protestors at the Chinese Embassy accused China of “consuming” Ecuador’s natural resources. Consequently, Chinese illegal fishing has undermined Latin American country’s ability to access crucial fishing resources. Some might object by noting that Latin American waters were not fished sufficiently prior to China increasing its presence. However, one can resolve such questions by looking to the responses of local individuals. Since local individuals possess the best and most direct knowledge about how illegal fishing impacts their lives, one should prioritize their testimony when assessing the consequences of illegal fishing.

In response to such illegal fishing, Latin American nations have taken some action to counter the threat of illegal Chinese fishing. Militarily, preemptive action to prevent illegal fishing has increased. The Ecuadorian Navy conducted naval exercises utilizing the Huancavilca submarine in order to prevent international maritime crimes. Additionally, in late July, the Argentine government passed a decree to acquire defense acquisitions equipment such as OPVs and Beechcraft T-6C+ Texan II aircraft. Thus, Latin American nations have moved to preempt illegal fishing.

However, the increase in illegal fishing has not spilled over to significantly undermine the quality of Sino-Latin American diplomatic and economic ties. Because China exerts such significant economic power in the world, many Latin American countries hesitate to take punitive action against it. Despite such cases of illegal fishing, trade between Peru and China remains strong with trade growing by 30 percent in the first half of 2017. Similarly, the Argentine government recently allowed the Ali Baba to sell wine, meat, and fish there. Consequently, Latin American nations have hesitated to respond punitively to Chinese illegal overfishing.

Overall, Chinese illegal fishing has significantly increased in Latin America in recent years. While Latin American countries have invested some resources in countering the threat of illegal fishing, much illegal fishing often goes unnoticed with negative consequences for the people of Latin America. Ultimately, the current situation necessitates a renewed commitment to the importance of maritime sovereignty by China now more than ever

Featured Image source: Wikipedia