PUCUSANA, Peru: Fishing boats, which leave this port daily to harvest tuna, and later squid, face an uncertain future due to an invasion of Chinese fishing boats.
Operating in international waters, there were 54 Chinese vessels in 2009. By 2020 there were 557, according to the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization.
Further, the size of the Chinese catch has grown from 70,000 tons of squid annually in 2009 to 358,000 today.
The Chinese fishing boats use powerful lights at night to attract swarms of squid.
"It really is like the Wild West out there," said Captain Peter Hammarstedt, director of campaigns for Sea Shepherd, an ocean conservation group. "Nobody is responsible for enforcement," he told the Associated Press.
Chinese boats are being monitored now, after hundreds of Chinese vessels were discovered fishing near the Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO world heritage site.
China began sending large fleets worldwide, after depleting fishing nearer its mainland in the 1980s.
"China doesn't do anything that Europe has not done exactly the same way," said Daniel Pauly, a prominent marine biologist at the University of British Columbia. "The difference is that everything China does is big, so you see it," as reported by the Associated Press.
Chinese fishing vessels have had skirmishes with authorities due to a wide range of questionable activities, ranging from labor abuses, past convictions for illegal fishing or violations of maritime law, including human trafficking.
The waters off Peru have enormous schools of the Humboldt squid, one of the most abundant marine species.
However, experts note that squid stocks have disappeared from other oceans in past years.
"If you have a vast resource and it's easy to take, then it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this is limitless," said William Gilly, a Stanford University marine biologist who has spent decades studying squid, as reported by the Associated Press.
In response to public outcries, in 2020 China imposed stricter penalties on companies caught breaking international rules. China also ordered off-season moratoriums on squid fishing in the high seas.
China is responsible for sone 50 percent of the $314 million in squid that the U.S. imported in 2019, the bulk sold as fried calamari in restaurants.
In grappling with the fleets of Chinese ships, several South American governments have proposed banning transshipments at sea and boosting the number of observers on ships to document catch sizes and violations.
But China has voiced opposition to these proposals.
"China doesn't really seem interested in expanding protection," said Tabitha Mallory, a China scholar at the University of Washington who specializes in the country's fishing policies. "They follow the letter of the law but not the spirit," she told the Associated Press.
Today, those fisherman departing Pucusana must spend one week at sea to bring back the haul that used to take one day.
Local fishermen also report Chinese boats fishing illegally in Peruvian waters, but complain that the government does not enforce the law.
"There's no maritime authority that defends us," complains Lpez, a local fisherman. "I don't know what power the foreigner has that they come to my home and do what they want," he said, as reported by the Associated Press.