Argentina Casts a Net to Catch Poachers

An Argentine coast guard ship chases a South Korean fishing boat that was illegally fishing in Argentina's territorial waters.
An Argentine coast guard ship chases a South Korean fishing boat that was illegally fishing in Argentina's territorial waters. (Courtesy Of Argentine Coast Guard)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 22, 2005

COMODORO RIVADAVIA, Argentina -- The Argentine coast guard ship, crashing through white-capped Atlantic waters and battling 40 mile-an-hour head winds, finally caught up to the South Korean fishing boat after a two-hour chase.

When Argentine officials hoisted hook ladders and boarded the vessel earlier this month, what they discovered in the ice-filled hold came as no surprise: a mountain of freshly caught shortfin squid, one of the most popular delicacies found on dinner plates throughout Asia.

"It's the fourth boat fishing illegally that we've chased and captured this year, just in this district," said Capt. Pedro Mele, recounting the chase in the coast guard headquarters overlooking this iron-gray port. "It had about 20 tons of processed squid on board, and more that was unprocessed."

The four seizures are a point of national pride, but officials said many more foreign fishing boats in search of Argentine squid -- an increasingly sought-after staple of Asian dishes and Spanish paellas -- have evaded capture. Hundreds of Asian boats are spotted each year illegally dropping their nets and lines in Argentine territorial waters, which extend 200 nautical miles from the coast.

In the past decade, Argentina's seafood harvest has exploded. In the early 1990s, the ocean catch was virtually negligible in terms of revenue. Since then, it has surpassed Argentina's celebrated beef, in most years bringing in $800 million to $1 billion. Last year, Argentina exported 493,000 metric tons of seafood.

Consequently, the country recently has become especially protective of its maritime resources. The Defense Ministry this year ordered more fast boats to patrol against ocean poaching. Last year, an Argentine warship fired a warning missile toward a Taiwanese fishing boat as it fled toward international waters; no damage or injuries resulted.

Fines of about $350,000 have been imposed to deter illegal fishing, and authorities have reported that some fishing crews have actually sunk their boats and escaped to other vessels, presumably to avoid the penalties.

Much to the annoyance of fishery officials, a ragtag flotilla of foreign fishing boats routinely hovers just outside the Argentina's territorial waters, flirting with a line that is very difficult to safeguard.

The boats may fish with impunity outside the boundary, but the migratory squid, which range from waters near the Falkland Islands toward the Uruguayan coast, often tempt them to cross the invisible line. Conservationists express concern that the harvesting, even if legal, may be dangerously depleting the squid population and harming the ecological balance of the sea.

"The boats are risking more and more all the time," said Eduardo Coutinho, chief of operations for the coast guard at Comodoro Rivadavia.

Although there are more than 100 known species of squid, the Argentine shortfin -- or Illex argentinus -- is one of two that together constitute the majority of the international calamari market.

The squid live for only about a year and are highly reproductive, which inherently protects them from overfishing. But last year's squid catch was less than one-fourth of the harvest five years earlier, when the area was labeled the world's fastest-growing fishery by the U.N. Environment Program.

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