South Atlantic

South Atlantic

Argentina moves to strengthen coastal sovereignty

Recent measures taken by the Argentinian government concerning the country’s coastal sovereignty may have an impact on its fishing industry.

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.

Intercepted inside national limits, a fishing vessel being escorted to an Argentinian port. Image: Gobierno de Argentina / Interceptado dentro de los límites nacionales, un buque pesquero es escoltado a un puerto argentino

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.

A meeting between Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez and Frida Armas last month. Image: Gobierno de Argentina / Una reunión entre el presidente argentino Alberto Fernández y Frida Armas el mes pasado

‘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.

A squid jigger on South Atlantic fishing grounds. Image: Gobierno de Argentina / Potero en los caladeros del Atlántico Sur

‘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).

A boarding party heads for a trawler in the South Atlantic. Image: Gobierno de Argentina / Grupo de embarque se dirige a un arrastrero en el Atlántico Sur

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.

Argentina’s congress is looking at a significant increase in fines for ilegal fishing. Image: Gobierno de Argentina / El congreso argentino estudia un aumento significativo de las sanciones por pesca ilegal

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.

Eduardo Pucci, executive director of the Organisation for the Protection of Resources in the Southwest Atlantic (Opras)

Falklands tensions

Eduardo Pucci explained that the continental shelf extension has been implemented at the same time when the EU and the UK are negotiating Brexit.

‘The permanence of the European fishing fleet in the Malvinas depends on the kind of agreement that will be established concerning the islands,’ he said.

Almost 90% of the fishing exports from the islands are currently shipped tariff-free to Europe. According to reports, the UK is currently negotiating with Brussels to include the Malvinas/Falkland Islands in their future commercial agreements, while Argentina is pressuring the EU to keep the islands out of the negotiation.

According to Federico Martín Gómez, President Fernández’s stance on the islands has domestic and international angles.

‘Internationally, the government wants to strengthen its position in the territorial dispute with the United Kingdom. The consequences of such a move depend on the British reaction,’ he said.

Domestically, the debate concerning Argentinian sovereignty over the islands historically had a huge impact on society.

‘A greater presence of the country in the South Atlantic is fundamental to give it conditions to assure its sovereignty over the region,’ he said.

For the Argentinian fishing sector, the lack of regulation of fishing activities in the region’s international waters is also a main obstacle. Eduardo Pucci stated that Opras has recently established agreements with the fisheries’ association of Itajaí, in Southern Brazil (Sindipi), and with the Committee for the Sustainable Management of the Southern Pacific Jumbo Flying Squid (Calamasur), in order to strengthen institutional organisation against illegal fishing.

‘The Brazilian and the Argentinian governments are also working on this,’ he said.