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After more than 20 years of analysis and effort, Argentina has legally extended its continental shelf from the international standard 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) to 350 (650 kilometers). The expansion, which grants Argentina sovereign rights over the new area’s seabed and subsoil, was initially approved by the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2016, with the final stamp of approval coming from the Argentinian Congress in August. But while the decision has put one chapter of this long and controversial endeavor to bed, it has opened a new one: what does this mean for the water above the continental shelf?
Frida Armas, a professor at Argentina’s University of Buenos Aires who coordinated the Argentinian commission in charge of the request, outlines the limits of the decision: “Argentina holds rights over mineral resources, hydrocarbons, and sedentary species which live on or under the seabed in this area,” such as lobsters, crabs, and scallops. Pelagic organisms, however, those that live in the water column or at the sea’s surface, aren’t included.
This means that serious economic and diplomatic conflicts related to fishing operations in the region, particularly the squid fishery, have not been directly resolved with the change.
For years, Argentinian fishers and environmental activists have been complaining about the presence of a huge foreign fishing fleet operating just outside the country’s territorial waters, which, despite the extension of its continental shelf, remain fixed at 200 nautical miles from the coast. As many as 500 vessels at a time, mostly from China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Spain, come to fish for Argentine shortfin squid.
Milko Schvartzman, a marine conservation specialist at the NGO Círculo de Políticas Ambientales (Environmental Policies Circle), says he’s seen the congregation of boats. “That fleet occupies a 600-kilometer-long stripe on the sea—a very small area in nautical terms, but it’s a big concentration of ships.”
Schvartzman estimates they catch about 400,000 tonnes of squid per year, while Argentinian fishers catch 200,000 tonnes within the country’s territorial waters. “We can’t know the exact amount for sure,” says Schvartzman, “given that they operate without regulation and their catch is not reported.” By-catch and poaching are suspected to be huge problems within the unregulated fleet, he adds.
Argentine shortfin squid migrate in ovoid cycles between Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil, moving out of Argentina’s territorial waters to reproduce. “The population that grows up in Argentinian waters is the same that is irregularly caught by that foreign fleet,” says Eduardo Pucci, executive director of the Organización para la Protección de los Recursos Pesqueros del Atlántico Sur (Organization for the Protection of Fishery Resources of the South Atlantic), a civic association for Argentinian fishers worried about illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in the region. Pucci says the foreign fleet “takes advantage of the lack of regulation in that zone.”
“The Argentine shortfin squid is the main part of the South Atlantic food chain,” says Schvartzman. “Not only do commercial species eat it, like the hake, but also fur seals, dolphins, and sperm whales.
“Penguins and elephant seals travel every year to the area where the foreign fleet operates in order to prey on squid,” he adds. The large concentration of boats causes considerable light and noise pollution, which can affect those species.
The presence of so many foreign fishing vessels is a source of tension. One of the main concerns of those who follow this issue is the frequent use of slave labor. There have been reports of the harrowing treatment of crew, including the case of one Indonesian citizen who died on a Chinese boat and was stored in a freezer.
Occasionally, the conflict has grown heated. Foreign vessels sometimes move into Argentina’s waters, leading to the arrest and prosecution of their crews. In 2016, a Chinese boat was fired on and sunk by an Argentinian patrol boat.
But even in less strained moments, Argentinians decry these vessels for neglecting regulatory measures put in place to safeguard the squid fishery, says Schvartzman. “They also ignore most sanitary and labor protocols.” Schvartzman says the fleet releases large quantities of trash and waste, with plastic debris washing up as far afield as Montevideo, Uruguay.
Many of these vessels are supported by cargo ships that provide fuel and supplies and store their catch, and they operate for several months at a time before returning to port, Schvartzman says. “They’re subsidized by their national states, one way or another.”
Even though this fishing hurts squid stocks and opportunities for Argentinian companies in the international market, Pucci says Argentina’s government has taken no concrete measures to stop it.
One such measure is to create a regional fisheries management organization (RFMO) in partnership with other nations. RFMOs provide the legal framework used all over the world to regulate fishing in international waters. But Argentina has been reluctant to do this, says Pucci, in part because of the 200-year-old dispute with the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
“It’s not acceptable for Argentina that the UK becomes part of a regional organism as one of the coastal states,” explains Pucci.
The scars from that dispute run deep, and the continental shelf extension afforded by the United Nations to Argentina sidesteps the issue by leaving the islands and their surroundings out of the official extension, says Armas.
But with the lack of joint policies between Argentina and other countries, the international fleet has been free to operate in the unregulated zone just outside Argentina’s territorial waters, putting the Argentine shortfin squid—and all the other species that depend on it—in danger.
Although the recently approved continental shelf extension does not give Argentina the ability to regulate fishing activity in the zone beyond its territorial waters, it does present a new opportunity.
Josefina Bunge, the coordinator of South Atlantic Ocean policies at the Argentinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship, and a member of the Federal Fisheries Council, says the continental shelf extension—and the associated rights to the seafloor—has given Argentina new powers to indirectly mitigate the situation, for example by restricting or forbidding the use of trawl nets, which damage the seafloor.
While Argentina does not have full control over the newly granted continental shelf area, it has been given new options for dealing with the international fleet operating just outside its territorial waters.