By André Carvalho

Nowadays, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is the most significant threat to maritime security worldwide. It is estimated that the IUU fishing is responsible for the annual loss of tens of billions of dollars in revenue for legal anglers. According to data reported in 2020 by the United States Coast Guard (USCG), IUU fishing also affects the global food security preventing the 3.3 billion of people that rely on fish to access their main source of animal protein. Furthermore, it is estimated that 93% of major fish stocks are already “classified, overexploited or fully depleted” due to the IUU fishing mismanagement of maritime resources. Thus, this illegal activity is not only a maritime concern, but also a threat to international security.

China’s IUU fishing has affected the world's oceans and has proved to be a unique and dire threat. The overfishing and water pollution resulting from the illegal activities have caused enormous environmental, economic, and social damages to coastal states affected by these practices. Currently, China has the largest illegal fishing industry in the world. The Distant Waters Fleet (DWF) is the responsible for conducting Chinese IUU fishing operations, and it uses mostly fishing vessels, factory ships and reefer vessels - a logistical scheme to make any legal fishing company jealous. Recent data suggests that the current number of China’s DWF is around 17,000 vessels, making possible for China to diversify its illegal fishing activities near the Korean Peninsula, on the African coast and in the Latin and South American waters

Nonetheless, China’s fishing fleet also has another strategic duty: to function as the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia. In addition, although the militia has a history of harassing only China’s neighbours and strategic surroundings, one can also understand that they are part of a uniquely devised plan to China exert strategic influence around the globe. 

Although the problem is not necessarily new for the South American region, consequences of climate change have altered the composition of fish populations around the world, making the Chinese fishing activities intensify in South American in recent years. The situation started to gain attention in 2016, when ships from the Argentinian Coast Guard sank the Chinese fishing boat Lu Yan Yuan Yu 010 after detecting its illegal fishing activities in Argentinian waters. In 2017, the Ecuadorian Navy seized a Chinese boat which was detected fishing an endangered shark species near the Galapagos Islands. However, it did not seemed to have deterred Chinese intentions in the region. 

The situation escalated in 2020, when the Ecuadorian Navy discovered a huge Chinese fleet with between 270 and 400 vessels piling the waters inside the Ecuadorian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Chinese fleet overwhelmed the Ecuadorian Navy in numbers, making the latter require assistance from the USCG in order to deter illegal activities in the vicinities of Ecuador’s EEZ. The fleet then tried to operate into Chile’s EEZ, leading the Chile’s Chief of Security and Maritime Operations to create a task force to monitor illegal fishing activities along the Pacific Coast of South America.

Within this context, a country with a dishevelled navy, with innocuous floating firepower and without a complete situational control of its territorial sea, may find itself tobe susceptible to Chinese illegal fishing activities. In addition, it makes South American navies rely mostly on the USCG’s capabilities to patrol waters e.g. the deployment of the USCG Cutter Bertholf to help the Ecuadorian Navy patrol illegal activities near Galapagos, and the recent deployment of USCG Cutter Stone to patrol the Atlantic Coast of South America.  

In this sense, dealing with illegal fishing issues has proved to be a major challenge for South American navies due to limitations in their structure, order of battle and relative power. One of the main problems is that – for reasons that remain unclear - most of the South American navies do not admit the creation of a Coast Guard. Therefore, in some cases these navies are equipped with sophisticated war fighting equipment, but are starkly deficient in coastal patrol. South American countries have small fleets for an ostentatious patrolling of its coast and EEZ and this shows a certain neglect of naval patrol capabilities. A clear example is that the Brazilian navy, the second largest navy in the Americas, in a country with an approximately 8 thousand kilometres long coastline, does not have a continuous production program for ocean and coast patrol ships. 

In the same way, South American navies – and armed forces – show a significant absence of tactical and strategic unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for sensing their territorial seas, as well as operational terrestrial observation satellites to conduct Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance (ISR) operations.

South America is a region where efforts to engage in cooperation hardly sees continuity. However, when the establishment points to the lack of capacity and resources to keep monitoring and controlling territories in an effective manner, defence cooperation can be a pivotal asset on the fight against Chinese IUU in the region. However, the problem with cooperation in such a scenario is that it is geographically limited. Thus, South American countries could also rely on interoperability for joint operations to tackle doctrinal and structural problems, as well as lean towards area and sea denial strategies as a way to get rid of the dependence on American military power.