An "armada" of more than 100 fishing vessels is illegally looting the waters of the South Atlantic near Argentina, environmental groups say, raising concerns about the coronavirus lockdown that has weakened already fragile marine protections.
The incursion of the ships, mainly from East Asia, appears to have been carried out by stealth. The vessels waited until dark, shut down satellite tracking systems in coordination and then moved into the squid-rich waters of Argentina's exclusive economic zone, Greenpeace said.
The boats were detected in Mar del Plata on the radar of a legal vessel, which reported the incident to coast guard officials and fisheries authorities.
According to one estimate, the ships, each capable of taking 50 tons per day, could exceed the quota of the Argentine fleet throughout the season in less than three weeks.
The incident provoked questions in parliament and underscored how business interests are trying to capitalize on the relaxation of environmental monitoring and law enforcement during the pandemic.
“Most people think that the global pandemic means that nature finally has a chance to heal. But this is not what we are seeing in the unregulated waters of the South Atlantic Ocean, "said Luisina Vueso, from Greenpeace's Protect the Oceans campaign.
"Just a glance at this shocking radar image shows you that this navy is taking advantage of the lack of governance on the high seas to empty our oceans of life," he added.
Similar concerns have been raised in other areas of the world. In the Amazon, deforestation is accelerating and more illegal miners are invading indigenous territories after the Brazilian government admitted it would have fewer rangers on the ground.
In the savannas of East Africa, conservation groups are warning of an increase in wildlife poaching. And in the United States, oil companies have lobbied to develop wells within national parks and to criminalize the pipeline protesters.
The oceans pose an even greater concern, environmental groups say, because even before the pandemic there was very little regulation of fishing and mining in international waters. This is the least patrolled domain in the world. Monitoring has declined further since the Covid-19 outbreak.
This month, marine conservation group Sea Shepherd reluctantly suspended its campaign to protect the critically endangered vaquita porpoise in Mexico's Upper Gulf of California because it was unable to secure fuel due to the pandemic.
Industrial tuna fishing companies have persuaded maritime organizations to remove onboard monitors, reduce inspections in ports and loosen transshipment requirements.
The Canadian government has followed several countries in removing observers from all fishing vessels until the end of May, which means that what is caught and disposed of is not monitored.
This has alarmed ocean conservationists and some of the most responsible fishing companies. The International Seafood Sustainability Foundation said the lower level of surveillance "would open the door to increased illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and in doing so could undermine the recovery and resilience of many important global fish stocks."
Frédéric Le Manach, scientific director of the ocean protection group Bloom Association, said that fishing fleets around the world were pushing for fewer restrictions on their activities, which could have disastrous consequences.
"The pandemic is a good excuse for industrial fishing because without observers you can do exactly what you want," he said. “But it would be a big mistake to allow weaker regulations in a time of crisis because once you do, it's hard to go back. If anything, we need stronger monitoring during this crisis. This could be the time we place CCTV cameras on board every fishing boat. This would be a big step forward ”.
Fishing fleets push for weaker rules so they can compete on a level playing field. The nationalist undercurrent was evident in the UK recently when five European supertrawlers entered British waters. This is legal, but it sparked accusations that they were taking advantage of the blockade, because there were fewer such vessels last year.
Vueso said worsening wrestling for all showed the need for a global ocean treaty that would create more sanctuaries and coordinate the management of the high seas and the punishment of violators.
"The solution is not simply to add more patrols to Argentine waters if hundreds of vessels of different nationalities are operating illegally in the area," he said. "A robust treaty would also increase international collaboration to crack down on vessels like these that even during a global shutdown will seek to seize any opportunity to plunder our ocean."
In the tuna-rich waters of the Coral Triangle in Southeast Asia, illegal fishing has long been plentiful, and locals expect it to grow in the pandemic. Last month, Indonesian maritime authorities seized three illegal Philippine and two Vietnamese fishing vessels.
“We are prepared for any increase in illegal vessels operating in Indonesian waters amid the spread of Covid-19. That is why we are not slowing down our operations, as illegal fishing is still rampant, ”the government said.