Unlicensed, unregulated fishing vessels pull an estimated 300,000 tonnes of ilex squid a year out of the South Atlantic. The squid is not only an important economic resource, it is also key to a food chain that sustains penguins, seals, birds and whales.
But efforts to manage it were set back in 2005 when Argentina pulled out of a fisheries management organisation it had shared with the Falklands. Argentina’s government doesn’t want any co-operation that might hint at recognition of self-government on the British islands it claims, which it calls Las Malvinas.
“It’s like the Wild West out there,” said Milko Schvartzman, who campaigns against over-fishing for Greenpeace International. He said many unlicensed boats routinely follow squid into Argentina’s economic exclusion zone.
He added: “Unfortunately, the Argentine government doesn’t have the naval capacity to continually control this area.”
The Falklands are defended by British warships, planes and submarines, giving the fisheries agency considerable muscle to enforce licences in its waters. But Argentina’s navy has never recovered from the 1982 war for the islands, and its coastguard has just eight ships to cover more than one million square miles of ocean, said its chief of maritime traffic, Mario Farinon.
The problem is so big it can be seen from space: images of the Earth at night, taken by a Nasa satellite last year, show darkness at sea the world over – except for a spot in the South Atlantic. There, 200 miles offshore, the lights of the renegade fleet shine as brilliantly as a city.
The industrial fishing vessels transfer tonnes of squid to huge refrigerator ships and get refuelled and resupplied at sea so that they can fish without pause.
The countries that share the North Atlantic co-operate, with scientists, regulators, fishermen and armed forces working together to monitor fish populations and enforce limits on what can be caught each season. Not so in the South Atlantic, where Argentina ended 15 years of joint fisheries management in 2005.
So each government now goes its own way, licensing boats and trying to enforce its stretch of the sea, while refusing to co-operate against the much larger fleet that is just beyond their individual reach. Each government has licensed about 100 boats a year to go after ilex squid. But there are many more outlaws.
“It is one of the most pressing questions facing us on the Falkland Islands,” governor Nigel Haywood said. “We’ve seen the collapse of whiting stocks, we’ve seen the collapse of hake stocks … that bridge Argentine waters and Falkland Islands waters. We see that the ilex squid stocks are similarly threatened.”
Alexander Arkhipkin, a government fisheries scientist in Port Stanley, said: “Argentina should engage with us in a dialogue, as they’re obliged to do under the law of the sea, to ensure that fish stocks are conserved properly.”
Most Argentine fishermen can’t compete against the outlaws, said Guillermo de los Santos, the chamber president of Argentina’s squid fishing fleet. He said more than 20 fishing businesses based in the port city of Mar del Plata alone have declared bankruptcy since 2005, when the unregulated international fleet, much of it from China, swelled.
“China has the world’s largest fleet, and Argentina hardly has a single boat in its own waters,” Mr Schvartzman said.