How Latin American Navies Combat Illegal, Unreported, or Unregulated Fishing

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At the end of March, Argentina’s minister of defense flew aboard a C-130 Hercules aircraft over Argentina’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to monitor firsthand international distant-water fishing vessels potentially involved in illegal, unreported, or unregulated (IUU) fishing in the country’s waters. Across Latin America, navies and coast guards are the first line of defense to combat this crime.

IUU fishing in Latin America, particularly South America, has been extensively researched. Hence, rather than focusing on the problem, this commentary will focus on the roles of armed services, specifically navies, in monitoring IUU fishing vessels and stopping them if necessary. The international fishing fleet currently in the South Atlantic will eventually sail south, cross the Magellan Strait and the Cape Horn, and travel north, crossing (and potentially operating in) Chile and Peru until reaching Ecuador. During this voyage, regional navies will deploy patrol vessels, warships, and even submarines, in addition to maritime patrol craft, to monitor the fishing fleet.

The IUU fishing problem is certainly not new, but it is happening at a peculiar time in Latin American and Caribbean geopolitics. The last interstate war in the region was in 1995 between Ecuador and Peru, while the last interstate conflict with a maritime theater of operations, the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas war, was between Argentina and the United Kingdom. Nowadays, there are still territorial disputes, as well as occasionally belligerent and aggressive statements (particularly by the Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro toward Guyana over the Essequibo dispute) and “bad blood” between states. However, the likelihood of war is minimal, while confidence-building mechanisms, including military exercises and regular meetings between senior commanders, help maintain cooperation and communication and grow trust.

In this evolving situation, Latin American navies (and other armed services) still need to maintain deterrence capabilities and combat readiness. Nevertheless, they are also more heavily involved in noncombat operations like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; search and rescue; medical evacuations; and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions to crack down on maritime crimes like IUU fishing. In other words, the fleets are evolving as missions and priorities change.

In early April, Brazil’s third domestically manufactured submarine, Tonelero, was launched in Rio de Janeiro. While this made headline news because of the significant accomplishment it reflects, it is essential to note that other regional navies are focused on acquiring platforms more suitable for different missions, including combating IUU fishing. 

For example, in mid-April the Peruvian state-run shipyard SIMA signed a contract with Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries to build one multi-role vessel, one offshore patrol vessel (OPV), and two logistic transport vessels. The shipyard is already building the seventh and eighth Río Pativilca–class patrol vessels, which have successfully combated IUU fishing across Peru. Similarly, the Ecuadorian shipyard ASTINAVE is constructing a multipurpose vessel to help patrol Ecuadorian waters. Meanwhile, Colombia’s shipbuilding corporation COTECMAR is teaming up with Damen to build frigates for the navy. COTECMAR already has a history of manufacturing transport vessels, coastal patrol vessels, and OPVs and is currently building the first 93-meter OPV (OPV-93), which is 100 percent based on a Colombian design.

As for acquisitions of vessels from extra-regional suppliers, Argentina purchased four OPVs from France’s Naval Group to patrol missions and combat maritime crimes. When Argentine minister of defense Luis Petri flew aboard the Hercules aircraft to monitor the international fleet, two Argentine navy vessels, the corvette ARA Espora and one of the recently acquired OPVs, ARA Contraalmirante Cordero, were also in the EEZ tracking the fleet. Even cash-strapped Uruguay is finally moving forward with the acquisition of two Spanish-made OPVs so that the navy can improve control of the country’s maritime space.

From one perspective, Latin American navies are in the era of the OPV. OPVs can be utilized for combat operations, but also other missions, including combating IUU fishing. One key characteristic of OPVs is that they transport helicopters. Hence, when a suspicious fishing vessel is spotted, the OPV can deploy its helicopter and rigid inflatable boats, quickly becoming a small fleet of three to four platforms for surveillance and, if necessary, interception operations.

Nowadays, Latin American white papers (or white books if literally translated from Spanish, libros blancos de defensa) regularly mention the importance of environmental protection and cracking down on crimes like IUU fishing, illegal mining, illegal logging, and wildlife trafficking. Meanwhile, Brazil’s navy has drafted the Blue Amazon strategy (Amazonia Azul) to protect its 5.7 million square kilometers of maritime space. Military academic centers are also researching this issue: Colombia’s National War College published a book in 2022 titled Human Security and Environmental Crimes (Seguridad humana y crímenes ambientales), which addressed issues such as how Colombia’s decades of internal conflict affected the country’s natural environment, like in the case of IUU fishing. In other words, there is more strategic planning and academic literature about militaries and environmental crimes, including IUU fishing.

United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), whose area of responsibility includes most of Latin America and the Caribbean, is also keenly aware of the damage IUU fishing does to its regional partners and the importance of U.S. military cooperation to combat this threat. “Countering IUU fishing is one more way to bolster our partners’ national and economic security,” explains the command’s 2024 posture statement.

SOUTHCOM also carries out low-cost, high-reward operations to support its partners against this crime. In late 2022, B-1B Lancer bombers departed from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, to conduct surveillance missions near the Galapagos Islands. More recently, last October U.S. Coast Guard cutters Alder and Terrell Horne, as well as an HC-130 Hercules aircraft, carried out surveillance operations as part of Operation Southern Shield in the Eastern Pacific, off the coast of Peru. Both missions helped regional partners look for suspicious vessels engaged in crimes like IUU fishing.

So, what more can be done? In previous publications, the author has argued that Latin American and Caribbean navies need to think even more outside the proverbial box to devise new strategies to crack down on IUU fishing. The successful operations by regional navies and coast guards are commendable, but it is clear that this threat will not disappear.

Ideally, regional navies could form regional naval task forces to follow fishing fleets as the latter voyage across international waters. Current maritime operations that can be used as models are the multinational fleets operating in the Horn of Africa to combat piracy and those in the Red Sea to counter the Houthi rebels’ disruption of trade routes. Other examples can be found in the Caribbean, such as the Shiprider Agreement Washington has with several regional partners. Moreover, Operation Bahamas, Turks and Caicos is a multiagency international drug interdiction effort established in 1982 between Washington, Nassau, and Cockburn Town. There is also a partnership at the tip of South America worth considering: since 1998, the navies of Argentina and Chile have teamed up to monitor Antarctic waters via the Joint Antarctic Naval Patrol (PANC). 

Unfortunately, territorial disputes between some countries, historical distrust, and protection of national sovereignty (la soberanía nacional) mean that it is doubtful that there will be a cross-border South American or Central American fleet for monitoring fishing vessels. However, even closer military integration between a couple of countries that have strong relations could make a world of positive difference. The fact that Argentina and Chile, two countries that almost had a war in the late 1970s, now sail together via the PANC demonstrates that the current geopolitical climate across Latin America (some tensions and disputes notwithstanding) is ideal for new military partnerships to address common threats, like IUU fishing.

Another proposal is to reform old agreements, namely the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (TIAR). The document was signed in 1947, with Article 3 famously calling for collective security in case one of the parties were attacked. However, the effectiveness of the TIAR over the decades is debatable, and it has sometimes been used for nonmilitary purposes. For example, in 2019 it was invoked to put pressure on the Maduro dictatorship.

As argued in the “Southern Tide” column for the Center for International Maritime Security, the TIAR should be utilized to address IUU fishing in the Americas. Some articles, like Article 6, could be interpreted by the parties as applicable to an incident related to IUU fishing so that a party could invoke the treaty. Alternatively, an entirely new article could (or should) be added explicitly addressing IUU fishing. Updating the treaty into a TIAR 21 would bring new life to the TIAR and make it highly relevant to the region’s current challenges.

Combating IUU is complicated because it occurs at all levels. The distant-water fishing fleets receive the most media attention, primarily because they are composed of Chinese fishing vessels. However, there are other culprits, and regional navies should crack down on all of them. A country’s nationals can be engaged in IUU fishing. For example, in January the Colombian coast guard stopped two Colombian nationals who had illegally retrieved 1.2 tons of clams from the Magdalena River. Meanwhile, the Peruvian navy needs to monitor a fleet of domestic artisanal fishing vessels that constantly operate across the Peruvian sea.

Moreover, regional IUU fishing is a constant crime. The Peruvian navy regularly stops fishing vessels from Ecuador in its territory; the Uruguayan navy has identified Brazilian fishing vessels in its waters; meanwhile, the Colombian navy has stopped fishing vessels from Honduras and Nicaragua, to name just two countries. 

So far, IUU fishing has been a somewhat nonviolent crime, as IUU fishing vessels prefer to flee from or surrender to armed vessels. However, the 2016 sinking of the Chinese fishing vessel Lu Yuan Yu 10 after it was shot at by a patrol vessel assigned to Argentina’s Naval Prefecture (which happened because the fishing vessel rammed the Argentine ship) is a reminder that the situation could change for the worse in the future.

Latin American navies are evolving, particularly in South America. Several countries are acquiring or domestically manufacturing coastal patrol vessels, OPVs, and multipurpose vessels. Colombia, Chile, and Peru have set their sights on frigates, while Brazil can already manufacture submarines. While future navies will retain combat and deterrence capabilities, they will also be heavily composed of smaller, faster vessels, primarily CPVs and OPVs, ideal for monitoring and combating maritime crimes like IUU fishing.

Looking to the future, new technologies like unmanned aerial vessels or unmanned surface vessels can be deployed from ships, which could be a game changer for long-range surveillance missions. Moreover, the role of satellite technology in locating large and small fishing fleets should be considered. (Space programs across Latin America are primarily the domain of air forces, once again highlighting the critical military role in environmental protection missions.)

IUU fishing at all levels (domestic, regional, and extra-regional) will not stop. Hence, Latin American navies and coast guards require more vessels with helicopter capabilities and maritime patrol aircraft to locate and, if necessary, intercept IUU fishing vessels. More platforms, personnel, and capabilities are only part of the answer, as more comprehensive strategies are required, including greater integration among regional navies.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is a non-resident senior associate at the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.