As fish stocks in the South China Sea continue to wane, China is increasing its illegal fishing activity off the coast of Colombia. Officials observing maritime activity in the waters near Malpelo Island report an increase of foreign-flagged vessels taking advantage of the plentiful fishing in Colombia’s reserved zone.
Nearly 250 foreign ships were spotted in the area during April, and experts believe the problem will only worsen as Colombia’s navy is stretched thin. Many of these fishing vessels originate from China, or are flagged from neighboring countries such as Ecuador that sell their catches to Chinese buyers.
The Colombian government implemented measures in recent years to protect the wildlife living in the reserved zone. Bogota recently tripled the size of the zone, according to a report from InSight Crime. Still, officials from the Colombian government and the Colombian navy both agree more needs to be done to stop the multi-billion dollar illegal fishing operation.
Despite the damage inflicted on the ecosystem near Malpelo Island, the Colombian navy is focusing its resources on combating the increasing maritime drug activity and the new threat of Venezuelan pirates. Many of the pirates are common criminals, but even members of the Venezuelan government still loyal to Nicolás Maduro reportedly seized civilian vessels and used them to move oil to buyers in the region, despite sanctions on the country’s crude exports.
Earlier this month, intelligence operators with Venezuela’s Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) boarded an oil tanker, removed the ship’s master, and forced the crew to sail to Cuba. According to a report from The Panam Post, the ship’s GPS equipment was deactivated during the voyage to prevent detection. The Maduro regime has used similar tactics to sidestep sanctions since at least the end of 2018.
The increased amount of illegal maritime activity is also noticed by the United States. In April, Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) chief U.S. Navy Adm. Craig Faller visited with military leaders in both Colombia and Ecuador. The Admiral’s visit focused on “irregular migration, money laundering, drug trafficking, the illegal exploitation of mining deposits, traffic and commercialization of arms, ammunition and explosives and illegal trade in wildlife,” according to a SOUTHCOM press release.
“It was a very constructive and productive dialogue where the shared commitment of the two countries against drug trafficking was reiterated,” said a spokesperson in a statement for Colombian president Iván Duque Márquez.
The partnership between the U.S. and Colombia has strengthened in recent years. Earlier this month, aircraft from the Colombian Air Force conducted training exercises with U.S. Navy assets during the Red Flag 19-2 exercise in Nevada. The U.S. will also deploy the hospital ship U.S.N.S. Comfort to the area next month to assist Colombian authorities treating Venezuelan migrants, who have fled across the border to escape the nightmarish conditions in the country. According to acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, the Comfort’s visit is about more than just providing humanitarian aid to the allied nation.
According to the U.S. Naval Institute News, Shanahan explained the approach while speaking to reporters at the Pentagon.
“It’s not about sending a ship down. You have to get doctors and nurses, so it’s very highly choreographed in terms of the people that you have to put in place. So that gives you a sense of the planning that we are doing. But as you recall last week with all the events, it’s been a very fluid situation,” Shanahan said. “I had Adm. Faller here from SOUTHCOM, and we spent the better part of Friday being very well coordinated on our plans within the U.S. government as well as making adjustments. This meeting was always planned because what we want to do is to continue to refine our efforts, not just one a humanitarian basis, which is the USS Comfort, but also our work with Colombia.”