- The Spanish government sanctioned 25 of its vessels for illegally turning off their satellite tracking devices while fishing off the coast of Argentina between 2018 and 2021.
- Experts say ships that “go dark” by turning off their trackers often do so to partake in illicit behavior, such as crossing into a nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) without authorization.
- While some have praised the Spanish government’s actions, one expert says he doesn’t believe the sanctions go far enough.
- Most fishing activity in this region is also unregulated and unmonitored, which raises environmental concerns.
In December, the Spanish government issued sanctions against 25 Spanish-flagged vessels that fished near the border of Argentina’s territorial waters between 2018 and 2021. The sanctions were for repeatedly turning off their satellite tracking devices that EU and Spanish laws require to be switched on to indicate a vessel’s location.
Some experts have celebrated these sanctions as essential in curbing illegal fishing practices on the high seas. Not only do laws prohibit vessels from turning off their automatic identification systems, or AIS, but experts say ships that that go “dark” often do so when partaking in illicit behavior, such as crossing into a nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) without authorization.
The sanctions resulted in fines of up to 60,000 euros ($65,000), but they haven’t stopped the vessels from fishing. Currently, at least five of the penalized Spanish vessels, all trawlers, are fishing off the Argentine coast, and experts expect more to arrive in the coming weeks. That said, since the issuance of the sanctions, none of the sanctioned vessels fishing in this area have turned off their AIS devices.
Milko Schvartzman, a marine conservation expert at the Argentinian NGO Environmental Policies Circle, said that even if the sanctioned vessels continue to obey the law by keeping their trackers on, fishing activity off the coast of Argentina is an “environmental time bomb” due to a lack of regulation as well as the sheer number of vessels congregating in this area. He said Spain usually has a fleet of up to 50 vessels operating in the area, including the ones that were hit with sanctions. Then there are about 500 to 600 other vessels from places like China, Taiwan and South Korea gathering along the border of Argentina’s EEZ each year to fish for squid, hake and grenadier. Yet, Schvartzman said, these activities aren’t closely monitored, documented or controlled.
‘Going dark’ near Argentine waters
In June 2021, Washington, D.C.-based NGO Oceana issued a report that analyzed data from Global Fishing Watch, a vessel transparency platform built by Oceana, SkyTruth, a nonprofit that provides environmental monitoring by satellite, and Google. The report found that between Jan. 1, 2018, and April 25, 2021, 800 foreign vessels from China, Taiwan, South Korea and Spain conducted 900,000 hours of visible fishing near Argentina’s EEZ. That’s fishing activity during which the vessels’ AIS transponders were on. But there were more than 600,000 additional hours in which these fishing vessels went dark by turning off their AIS. While there can be a legitimate reason for ships to go dark, such as a temporary loss of satellite coverage, experts say regular blackouts could indicate that ships are engaging in illegal activity.
The Oceana report found that during the period of analysis, China’s fleet of about 433 vessels had the highest total number of incidents but that the smaller Spanish fleet of about 30 vessels went dark three times as often as the Chinese fleet. The Spanish fleet also spent nearly twice as much time fishing with its AIS turned off as it did with the tracking devices turned on.
Drawing from Oceana’s analysis, the Spanish government investigated and sanctioned 25 of 27 vessels found to be turning off their AIS signals, issuing fines of between 15,000 and 60,000 euros ($16,500 to $65,000). According to Marla Valentine, Oceana’s campaign leader, the Spanish government did its own analysis and most likely determined that two reported vessels were turning off their AIS for legitimate reasons.
One of the sanctioned vessels is the Spanish-flagged Pesca Vaqueiro, which collided with a Chinese squid jigger in 2019 after the Spanish vessel had turned off its AIS. The Chinese boat ultimately sank, and the Argentine coast guard had to rescue the crew.
Another sanctioned vessel, the Playa Pesmar Uno, was detained by the Argentine coast guard in 2018 for carrying illegally caught fish, including hake, haddock, squid and skate.
Valentine said she was pleased with these sanctions due to the Spanish fleet’s long history of turning off their AIS.
”There are many governments who have AIS regulations which do not strongly enforce or monitor them,” Valentine told Mongabay. “And I found that the Spanish government is one of the best countries when it comes to enforcing that law and holding its distant-water fishing fleet accountable.”
Valentine added that the sanctions shouldn’t be interpreted as a “slap on the wrist” but that they have profound implications.
“Some of those fines are quite large, and that is a serious financial loss for these companies,” Valentine said. “But it also means that folks are going to be looking at these vessels from now on, and steeper fines in the future can result in loss of licenses or insurance. There’s some big risks there that will make these companies unable to operate financially” should they resume flouting AIS rules.
‘Environmental time bomb’
Schvartzman said he hopes the sanctions will change the behavior of the Spanish fleet, but pointed out that even the large fines won’t stop most of the vessels from fishing since they amount to a “penny” for large companies. Additionally, he said that even if the boats don’t enter Argentina’s EEZ, the environmental impacts of the fishing activities in this area will remain the same.
“Right now, people are starting to understand that the problem is not just if one vessel gets inside the EEZ and fishes illegally, but to have this huge fleet just at the border of the [Argentine] sea, this ‘city of light,’ as it’s called,” Schvartzman told Mongabay. “This is the main problem.”
Besides the handful of Spanish trawlers, about 195 foreign-owned jiggers — boats that shine bright lights into the water to attract and catch squid — are currently gathered along the Argentine coast, and others are en route. At the height of the squid fishing season here in mid-February, Schvartzman said he expects about 500 to 600 foreign vessels to assemble just outside the country’s EEZ in international waters, including those flagged to China, South Korea, Taiwan and, of course, Spain. In the past, he said, there have also been vessels flagged to Portugal and Russia.
“The big problem is this huge fleet that fishes without any regulation, any control,” Schvartzman said. “It’s an environmental time bomb.”
Schvartzman said fishing activities in this area need to be better regulated and monitored, and added there’s also a need for more information about the conservation statuses of fished species, particularly squid.
“Someday, the fishery will collapse,” Schvartzman said. “Squid is the core of the food web. Squid is the main food for hake — that’s one of the most fished species — but squid is also food for marine mammals like dolphins, sperm whales, sea lions, elephant seals and also a key food for penguins, albatrosses and other bird species. When you overfish squid, you have an impact on the whole ecosystem.”
Schvartzman said he’s hopeful the new Argentine government, which came into power last month, will search for a solution to these fishing issues, despite the administration’s proposal to significantly reduce environmental protections, including a deregulation of the fishing sector. However, Schvartzman said he doesn’t believe the proposal will pass into law, given significant pushback from fishers and environmentalists.
Valentine said she hopes other countries become more conscious of what is happening in fishing hotspots like the one in the waters off the Argentinian coast and that, like the Spanish government, they will take measures to rein in illegal fishing activities.
“It’s really important for all countries to be aware of what their fleets are doing worldwide,” Valentine said, “especially those fleets that are being subsidized by governments and taxpayers to fish. We want to make sure that all maritime laws are being followed, both for safety and for conservation measures.”
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
Banner image: Bottom trawler Ivan Nores, one of the sanctioned vessels. Image © Kate Davison / Greenpeace.