BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- It was a rare victory in the squid wars: Argentina's coast guard cutter Thompson fired warning shots at two Chinese trawlers, blocking their escape into international waters. Ten tons of squid were found in the holds of the Lu Rong Yu 6177 and 6178 after they were hauled into port on Christmas Day.
But this was just the first such capture in two years, a minor disturbance to the hundreds of unlicensed, unregulated fishing vessels that exploit the South Atlantic, pulling out an estimated 300,000 tons of ilex squid a year.
The species, which roams across the maritime boundary between Argentina and the Falkland Islands, is key to a food chain that sustains penguins, seals, birds and whales. Managed well, it could sustain a vigorous fishing industry and steady revenues for both governments.
But the two sides aren't even talking.
Argentina pulled out of a fisheries management organization it had shared with Falklands in 2005. The lack of cooperation has left both sides ill-equipped to deal with the fleet scooping up squid just beyond their maritime boundaries, and sometimes within.
"It's like the Wild West out there," said Milko Schvartzman, who campaigns against overfishing for Greenpeace International. "There are more than 200 boats out there all the time," and many 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 licenses in its waters. But Argentina's navy has never recovered from its 1982 war against Britain for the islands, and its coast guard has just eight ships to cover more than 1 million square miles (2,800,000 square kilometers) of ocean, said its chief of maritime traffic, Mario Farinon.
Farinon says the lack of seizures doesn't mean Argentina isn't trying. The coast guard always has at least one enforcement boat monitoring the squid fleet," he said, and "the important thing is not capturing them, but preventing them from coming in."
Still, the problem is so big that 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 this spot in the South Atlantic. There, 200 miles from the nearest coasts, the lights of this renegade fleet shine as brilliantly as a city.
The industrial ships transfer tons of squid to huge refrigerator ships and get refueled and resupplied at sea so that they can fish without pause.
Overfishing is a global scourge: The United Nations estimates that more than 70 percent of the world's fish species are threatened.
The countries that share the North Atlantic cooperate, 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 because it didn't want any government relationship suggesting a recognition of the islanders' claim to the British-held islands.
"We consider this to be Argentine territory under a situation of colonial occupation, and because of that we discount any of their claims towards sovereign jurisdiction," explained Juan Recce, who founded the Argentine Center for International Studies in Buenos Aires.
And so each government goes its own way, licensing boats and trying to enforce its stretch of the sea, while refusing to cooperate against the much larger fleet that's just beyond their individual reach.
"It is one of the most pressing questions facing us on the Falkland Islands," Gov. 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."
"It's very important to us that 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," Haywood said.
Inside the fisheries office in the islands' capital of Port Stanley, a computer monitor shows the location of each boat licensed to fish in Falklands waters. Similar GPS devices installed in Argentina's licensed fleet show their locations in an office in Buenos Aires. But the lack of cooperation has left both nations relatively blind and powerless to control the outlaw fleet.
"It's not the scientists who are behaving like politicians, but I think politicians themselves are pushing on their scientists not to communicate with us, easy as that. It's a very unfortunate situation," said Alexander Arkhipkin, a government fisheries scientist in Port Stanley.
Each government has licensed about 100 boats a year to go after Ilex squid, which spawn off the coast of Uruguay each year.
Squid licenses have provided about half the Falklands government's revenues over the years, ever since it showed it meant business by chasing an unlicensed Vietnamese shrimper all the way to South African waters, and firing into its hull along the way.
In Argentina, however, most 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 had to declare 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," Schvartzman said.
Farinon said that he participated in many high-seas captures of boats that tried to escape from territorial waters when he was a coast guard captain from 1987 to 2007. Such captures are less frequent lately, he acknowledged, although he said he didn't have any numbers.
More guns also could help. But Argentina's coast guard only challenges boats that it can prove were fishing in territorial waters, and that's not easy, Farinon said. "We're often talking about a matter of meters. You have to have a plane right on top of them, and a boat alongside, or else you could be mistaken that they crossed the border," he said.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides countries with tools that Argentina could use right now to combat overfishing.
One is the "hot pursuit" article, which enables enforcers to pursue boats fishing illegally within their territory into international waters. Another is the "straddling species" clause, which allows governments to protect wandering species like the ilex squid, by applying the same rules on both sides of their maritime border. Countries that jointly manage their seas often grant each other reciprocal permission to arrest rule breakers, and any two countries can make bilateral agreements to regulate their fleets as they see fit, Greenpeace attorney Daniel Simons said.
The territorial dispute makes that impossible here.
"Argentina should enforce the same rules and impose its sovereignty beyond the 200-mile limit," said de los Santos of the fishing chamber. "But it would have to have a fleet 10 times bigger."
APTN's Paul Byrne reported from the Falkland Islands.