Argentina has just approved the new limits of its continental shelf, established an advisory board to take care of matters concerning the Falkland Islands, and toughened up the penalties for illegal fishing.
These moves are partially a response to some of the long-time complaints of Argentinian fishing companies, which consider that most of the unfair competition they face from foreign vessels which operate close to Argentina’s territorial waters are somehow connected to the country’s dispute with the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
The recently approved law, which extended the Argentinian continental shelf by almost 1.8 million square kilometres – as the United Nations’ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) had authorised in 2017 – doesn’t initially entail further consequences for fishing in the region.
According to the lawyer Frida Armas, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires who co-ordinated the Argentinian commission in charge of the extension process, the archipelago territories were not under examination by the CLCS.
‘The analysis of the parts of the shelf related to territories in dispute is [generally] postponed,’ she said, and explained that the extension only refers to the seabed and its resources and doesn’t include the water and pelagic fish.
‘Only sedentary organisms, which never leave the seabed, may be comprised,’ she said. This could be the case for a few commercial species, including mussels and Argentine red shrimp.
But the new law comes together with a set of measures that may change the region’s landscape. Argentina is preparing a bid round to attract oil companies to fields in the new territory, a measure that some see as an attempt to weaken oil exploitation in the Falkland Islands. At the same time, the country is openly discussing new possibilities for fishing in the region and passed a bill to raise the fines for illegal fishermen.
‘the Argentinian industry considers that the large foreign fleet operating near the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone is working there illegally. Those boats buy fishing licenses from the British and come here to fish in disputed territories,’ explained Federico Martín Gómez, secretary of ReFEM 2065 (Federal Network of Studies on the Malvinas) and of the Department of the South Atlantic at the National University of La Plata.
The consequences of it are not only related to the direct amounts of catch that are perceived to be rightfully owned by Argentina, but also to the operations of that fleet near the Argentinian coast.
‘These are not pleasure boats. They come a long way from Asia and Europe to fish in the Malvinas and part of them end up fishing in nearby international waters,’ said Eduardo Pucci, executive director of the Organisation for the Protection of Resources in the Southwest Atlantic (Opras).
The unregulated fishing in the region includes species that live and reproduce in Argentinian waters but end up migrating to nearby areas. According to Eduardo Pucci, this is as much as 380,000 tonnes annually, damaging fish stocks and the local economy.
‘Some of those vessels are subsidised by their countries’ governments. On others there are terrible working conditions, which are comparable to slave labour. Many of them are supported by reefers and do not need to dock in port. All those elements are unacceptable,’ Eduardo Pucci said.
There are also incursions into the Argentinian EEZ. In 2020 so far, three have been intercepted by the Argentinian Navy.
Changes in the law on illegal fishing are still being examined in Congress, but if approved will increase the fines to up to 2 million US dollars. Detained vessels will also have to pay related costs and forfeit catches.