“Historical catches have been falling since the ’90s” in Peru, said Jaime Mendo, a lecturer in the School of Fisheries at the National Agrarian University-La Molina in Peru. The country is the planet’s leading producer of fishmeal and home to the biggest single-species fishery, for anchoveta.

In Chile, 62 percent of fisheries are overexploited or depleted. In Colombia, shrimp, the country’s second most exported fish product, is severely overfished. “Of a shrimp fishing fleet comprising more than 30 boats, last year no more than 15 boats were operative,” said Juan Manuel Díaz, regional manager of science with the Mar Viva Foundation, which has offices in Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama. “The other half is rusting in the docks of Buenaventura,” a fishing port on the country’s Pacific coast.

This article encapsulates a series of stories by Mongabay Latam examining the state of the sea in Chile, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador.

Illegal fishing

In August 2017, the Ecuadoran navy seized the Chinese cargo vessel Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 as it was crossing the waters of Galápagos National Park, a marine reserve. In the hold were 300 tons of fish, including protected species of shark.

The seizure of the Chinese ship created intense outrage. However, “the reality is that people fish illegally every day in Ecuador,” said Felipe Vallejo, director of the Quito-based NGO Equilibrio Azul.

In Ecuador, shark fishing is only allowed as incidental capture, that is, when fishers catch sharks accidentally. But according to a 2015 study, small-scale fisheries in the country capture at least 250,000 sharks every year, mainly to satisfy the demand of Asian markets. That figure proves that shark fishing isn’t just incidental; it’s targeted, according to Santiago Bucaram, an economist specializing in coastal resources with the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C.

Bucaram said that a substantial portion of Ecuador’s shark catch is harvested at the edge of the Galápagos marine reserve. “Ecuadoran artisanal boats don’t need to have satellite monitoring systems, so they could potentially have been accessing the reserve’s waters from the mainland to fish without being detected,” he said.

A source who asked to remain anonymous told Mongabay Latam that targeted shark fishing, both near the mainland and the Galápagos, is an open secret. Even so, “the government insists that there is no shark fishing,” the source said.

Something similar is happening in Colombia. “What fisherfolk contend is that sharks die accidentally, but if you go to the holds of these ships, what you find is basically just sharks,” said Díaz of the Mar Viva Foundation.

Colombia’s National Navy has seized a total of 122 tons of fish in the last three years. Sharks and tuna are popular targets of illegal fishing because they are highly profitable.

In Chile, the National Fishing Service estimates that around 320,000 tons of marine resources are extracted illegally every year, and the most vulnerable species is hake. According to fishing authorities in the country, the small-scale sector is the number one offender, registering catches up to 4.5 times the authorized quotas.

However, illegal fishing doesn’t only come from the artisanal sector. An estimated 120,000 to 150,000 tons of anchoveta are captured but never registered in Peru every year for the illegal production of fish flour, either by authorized companies or illegal processing plants.

Estimates of how much money illegal fishing produces are based on deduction. The price of shark fin is about $650 per kilogram, or about $300 per pound. If the Chinese ship seized in 2017 in the Galápagos marine reserve was carrying 300 tons of shark and the fin is 5 percent of an average shark’s weight, then the ship was probably carrying around 15 tons of shark fins. That’s worth almost $10 million, just in a single haul.

The irregular and secretive nature of illegal fishing makes it impossible to ascertain the real figures. Moreover, the countries often lack the resources and equipment to monitor fishing activities adequately or to measure the existing biomass of various fisheries.

Weak governance

Controlling illegal fishing would decrease the overexploitation of resources, but there is a consensus that the fundamental problem lies in weak governance.

In the case of Peru, the management of marine landscapes is complex, with numerous public institutions involved. In spite of the advances in inter-institutional cooperation, fishing policies still take a sectoral approach instead of an ecosystemic one. “The separation of responsibilities among the different local, regional and national authorities is not clear,” said Pedro Solano of the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law.

That translates into inefficiency in monitoring illegal activities, according to Renato Gozzer Wuest, a fisheries specialist with the Peruvian NGO REDES, and Juan Carlos Sueiro, director of fisheries in Peru with the marine conservation group Oceana. One example is the lack of a registry of fishers, which makes it impossible to know how many people are fishing in the country or how many resources they are extracting.

Something similar happens in Colombia. “Park [managers] make one decision, the mayor a different one, the national government a different one, and they don’t reach an agreement; the issue reaches the judge and he makes a completely different decision,” said Francisco Arias, director of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Research (Invemar).

There is also criticism of the influence the industrial fishing sector wields in establishing Colombia’s extraction quotas. “They have more political force to influence decisions, and in the end fishing quotas exceed what is recommended from a scientific and technical point of view. This doesn’t help stop the overexploitation of resources,” said Díaz of the Mar Viva Foundation.

Chile may be the best example for measuring the influence of industry on the public sector’s management of fishing resources. The country is currently revising its fishing law, which was approved in 2012. According to legal evidence, the fishing industry paid bribes to members of parliament and other main actors to pass this law, which delivered fishing rights to seven large companies forever.

The current revision of the fishing law includes changes in maritime concessions and the modernization of the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service to provide it with better instruments to monitor illegal activities. However, the changes aren’t sufficient for many in the small-scale sector and civil society organizations working on fisheries and marine conservation. For them, the changes won’t alter the fact that the law originated in corruption, and they want it revoked because they consider it unconstitutional.

In Ecuador, the Ministry of Aquaculture and Fisheries drafted a bill in December 2017 to replace the current law completely. Bucaram of the Inter-American Development Bank described it as “a good start” that needed “some improvement.” However, the bill still hasn’t even been presented in front of the National Assembly.

A sea of pollution

Up to 13 million tons of plastic are dumped in the world’s oceans every year, which take a toll on birds, fish and other marine life.

Plastic production is set to keep growing: from almost nothing in the 1950s it jumped to 407 million metric tons in 2015, according to a paper in the journal Science Advances. Researchers estimate that production will reach 1.8 billion metric tons by 2050.

South American countries have adopted some initiatives to address this problem. In 2014, the Galápagos Islands’ governing council banned the trade, distribution, sale and delivery of single-use plastic bags, and in May 2018, the Chilean congress passed a law that prohibits plastic bags in all businesses across the country.

Martin Thiel of Chile’s Universidad Católica del Norte, who studies marine garbage, points out that this is a good start, but it’s only one step. “We are surrounded by single-use plastic products: bottles, fast food wrapping, etc.,” he said. “We need to eliminate this single-use plastic culture if we really want to minimize the amount of plastic that reaches the environment efficiently.”

Other pollution sources like wastewater affect oceans in South America, mainly in areas with high population density and touristic appeal. Cartagena, Barranquilla, Santa Marta, Tumaco, Buenaventura and San Andrés in Colombia are some of them. In fact, Invemar has been monitoring the quality of Colombian sea water over the past 20 years, and it has found that the main problem is related to poor wastewater management in coastal towns.

In Paita in northwestern Peru, a 2014 study showed that the port was the town’s dump. The roots of this dire situation were the fishing companies located on the bay, the fishing activities that dump their waste in the sea, and the age of the sewer system. The situation has not changed, and marine pollution in Peru appears to be getting worse.

Conflicting industries

The waters of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are the site of hydrocarbon extraction operations. The subsoil in the sea of Ecuador is full of oil and gas. In the small fishing town of Ancón, a British company started to drill the country’s first oil wells in 1911. Now, next to Ancón there are 10 more oil fields.

Colombia is experiencing a boom in offshore oil drilling. 2017 data from the National Hydrocarbon Agency mentioned 24 offshore contracts and a total of 12 areas available in the Pacific and 33 in the Caribbean. Only two blocks are currently being drilled, but the potential for expansion is concerning due to the impacts it could have.

In 2008, a cracked pipe in a refinery in Santa Elena province, Ecuador, polluted almost one square kilometer (0.39 square miles) of coastal water. In the last five years, there has been at least one major oil spill in the city of Esmeraldas. The most recent spill was in Las Palmas beach, of 20 barrels of light oil.

For this reason, the concession of five offshore oil wells off northern Peru in 2018 worried the population. Although the decrees that granted the five parcels were revoked a few months later, there is still concern at the possibility of future projects.

Chile, on the other hand, doesn’t have offshore drilling, but there are four declared “sacrifice zones” because of the pollution created by industrial activities. Places “forgotten by the different administrations that keep allowing the installation of new polluting industries even when the impact on people’s health and the environment has been huge,” as the NGO Oceana puts it. Thermal power stations; plants for refining or smelting copper, iron, hydrocarbons or chemical products; tailings; stockpiles of coal; ports where polluting products are loaded and unloaded; successive oil spills and cases of stranded coal have worsened the devastated seascapes over the years.

Moreover, the salmon industry, located in the south of the country, has caused great harm to the environment.

The sensitivity of protected areas

In 2010, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile and Peru were among countries that adopted the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, a set of 20 commitments to comply with by 2020, including the protection of at least 10 percent of each country’s territorial waters.

Ecuador is home to 24 of the 27 kinds of marine and coastal ecosystems recognized at the global level. One of the most important natural sanctuaries in the world is located nearly 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the mainland: the Galápagos Islands, whose preservation has been fundamental to understanding how life works on our planet.

Ecuador’s Network of Protected Marine and Coastal Areas amounts to 11.6 percent of the country’s territorial waters. Colombia has also surpassed the Aichi goal by protecting 13.7 percent of its sea, and in 2018, Chile achieved the protection of 40 percent of its marine area in some way, becoming a conservation reference for the world.

Peru, however, is far behind, with less than 4 percent of its sea under some form of protection. “It is serious for a country that prides itself on being one of the most important fisheries in the world,” said Solano of the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law.

The benefits offered by these areas are associated with the conservation of marine ecosystems and the fight against overfishing and illegal fishing. But the challenges don’t end when the areas are protected, since protection can only be effective if it comes with management plans and budgets for monitoring, oversight and research, according to marine biologist Stefan Gelcich of Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. The problem, he said, is that in Chile none of the areas protected recently include a budget.

Vallejo of Equilibrio Azul said he agrees that protection is not always efficient. “Many of these marine areas are only protected on paper and if we don’t give them resources, we are not really taking care of the sea,” he said.

Banner image: A shark catch in Pucusana, Perú. Image courtesy of Oceana.

This article was first published by Mongabay Latam. Edits by Rebecca Kessler.


Martínez-Ortiz, J., Aires-da-Silva, A.M., Lennert-Cody, C.E., Maunder, M.N. (2015) The Ecuadorian Artisanal Fishery for Large Pelagics: Species Composition and Spatio-Temporal Dynamics. PLoS ONE10(8): e0135136.

Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R., & Law, K. L. (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever madeScience Advances3(7), e1700782.

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