The Maritime Agency of Chinese Ships in the Port of Montevideo

A big ship
Mongabay Latam
Montevideo, Uruguay
The Maritime Agency of Chinese Ships in the Port of Montevideo

Every year, a huge fleet of some 300 Chinese-flagged ships fishes off the seas of South America. It repeats a route that goes from the South Atlantic off Argentina to the vicinity of the Galapagos in the Pacific, passing through Chile and Peru. Along the way, some vessels have been caught fishing illegally and some have even been accused of human rights violations. For these reasons, in addition to the enormous quantities of fish resources that are caught by these vessels and often go unreported, the operations of the Chinese fleet in the region are a source of concern for scientists and marine conservationists.

In the region, the main port occupied by the Chinese fleet is the port of Montevideo, which is also used by Spanish, Korean and Panamanian vessels, among others. Montevideo receives, on average, 300 foreign fishing vessels annually.

According to the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, Uruguay is among the top 25 countries in the world in terms of efforts to counter illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Uruguay is one of the signatories to the UN Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA), which obliges the port of Montevideo to only give access to vessels that can prove that all their catches were legal and reported.

But is this really effective? Experts doubt it since the port of Montevideo, the only one with a free port regime in the region, which means laxer tax regulations, is one of the most visited ports globally by transshipment vessels which, as recognized by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), encourage illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. These are large refrigerated vessels, also known as reefers, which receive the catch of smaller vessels at sea, allowing them to empty their cargo without having to return to land so that they can continue fishing uninterrupted for long periods of time. This activity of transferring catches from one vessel to another is one of the most common strategies used for illegal fishing, the FAO says, since the holds of refrigerated vessels mix the catches of numerous vessels, making them untraceable.

Mongabay Latam accessed information from the port of Montevideo and verified that fishing boats and reefers with a history of illegal fishing have arrived there. In addition, the Port of Montevideo has been associated with receiving fleets denounced for labor abuse and human trafficking.

"We have detected cases of labor abuses on ships arriving in the port of Montevideo, such as excessive working hours without rest periods, wage disparities, informal contracts and physical and verbal abuse," says Jessica Sparks, a researcher on labor abuses in ports at the University of Nottingham. Indeed, according to figures from Uruguay's Prefectura, a total of 59 deceased crew members were disembarked at the port between 2013 and 2021.

While it is the Uruguayan government that determines who can use the port's services, there is another actor that is also important and has so far been less identified. The maritime agencies are the representatives of foreign fishing vessels in the country and who make all their arrangements with the Uruguayan state in order to be able to enter the port of Montevideo.

The role of shipping agencies

The agency, a figure that exists all over the world, performs functions linked to the entry, stay, provisioning and departure of the ship in port, from the purchase of foodstuffs to dealing with the crew. "The agencies do all the administrative work required for the operation of ships in port. They bring the translators, buy the groceries and coordinate the logistics," explains Milko Schvartzman, a marine conservation specialist from Argentina.

In addition, the agency is the legal representative of the ship owner or operator in the foreign country, being legally responsible for any claims related to the vessel's activity in the port and in national waters. Thus, "if the shipowner has committed an infraction, such as IUU fishing, the maritime agent should be aware of this as the representative, which gives him a certain degree of complicity," said Eduardo Pucci, a specialist in maritime law in Argentina.

A red and white ship
A South Korean fishing vessel at the Port of Montevideo in Uruguay / Credit: Milko Schvartzman.

However, if the vessel was previously sanctioned but paid the corresponding fine, or if the court case was closed, the agency is not prevented from providing services. However, IUU fishing or human rights abuses among the crew are not always formally sanctioned by national governments, which allows the agency to assist vessels suspected of illegal activities, Schvartzman says.

In addition, according to Schvartzman, the agencies have information on the ship at least a week before its arrival in Montevideo, so they can decide who to serve and who not to serve.

The expert, who has dedicated part of his career to investigating the operations of the Chinese fleet in Latin America, assures that the agencies "are also sometimes the ones who seek to lobby the government to obtain greater flexibility in the permits that must be presented in port". Likewise, through lobbying, the specialist maintains, the agencies seek to save costs for the ships so that, for example, "deceased crew members are cremated and do not have to be repatriated".

Between 2012 and 2021, a total of 68 maritime agencies assisted foreign fishing vessels in Montevideo, according to official information accessed by Mongabay Latam. Among them, Verny SA, stands out as the agency most used by Chinese vessels, several of them linked to IUU fishing and labour abuse.

Verny's ships

Based in Montevideo, Verny SA has a president, Chinese national Lu Zhao, and a secretary, Uruguayan Marcos Henares Madera, who describes Verny on his Linkedin as a maritime agency "representing fishing vessels, reefer vessels and third-flag fuel carriers".

Henares, who is also president of Velcafa, a cargo agency, although he is now Verny's secretary, was its vice-president in previous years. This media tried repeatedly to contact the company, but as of the publication of this article, no reply had been received.

According to information provided by the Port of Montevideo, Verny assisted, between 2012 and 2021, a total of 507 ships of which 344 were under the Chinese flag, which makes it the main maritime agency assisting ships from the Asian country. While other maritime agencies also assisted Chinese ships, such as Christophersen (160), Tideman (136) and Repremar (25), none are close to Verny's numbers. The remaining 163 vessels assisted by Verny were Spanish and Panamanian flagged.

Among the vessels with a track record that Verny assisted in Montevideo are the reefers Hai Feng 658, Hai Feng 688 and the Ocean Mariner which had previously been sanctioned by the Panamanian government for illegal transhipment. The company also assisted in 2017 of the Fu Yuan Yu 7883, which was later implicated in a forced labour case when 18 Indonesian workers alleged that they were not paid for their work between 2018 and 2020. Verny also received the Fu Yuan Yu 7614 in 2020 when it called at Montevideo to disembark crew on humanitarian grounds.

They are joined in the list by fishing vessels from the Lu Rong Yuan Yu fleet. Vessels 679, 977, 895 and 939 disembarked crew members with health problems and deceased in Montevideo. While the 668 has a history of having been detected fishing illegally in Argentina in 2020. Although he initially escaped and was not caught, he later decided to turn himself in and was escorted to Argentina by the prefecture.

On the other hand, Verny was also involved in a human trafficking case in 2013 in Uruguay. The national government detected a criminal organization dedicated to the trafficking of Chinese nationals. The organization brought into the country six people between the ages of 22 and 63, one of whom was to work on a Chinese-flagged ship through a work note from Verny. Following the judicial investigation, 18 people were prosecuted and later released.

A group of men on a boat
Indonesian crew member disembarked dead inside a wooden box at the Port of Montevideo / Credit: Embassy of Indonesia.

Aldo Braida, president of the Chamber of Foreign Fishing Agents, which represents Verny, among other maritime agencies, argues that it is not the agency's responsibility to check the vessels' information. "We only transmit the documentation that is requested from the government prior to arrival, which is in fact a lot,'' he says.

The vessel must present a declaration of no fishing in an illegal zone, a fishing permit and a declaration from the flag state stating that it monitored and verified the vessel, among other documents requested by Uruguay. The vessel is asked why it is coming, whether it is arriving at the port to change crew or to unload goods, and it can also be inspected in person. However, in practice, Schvartzman argues, the documentation has many problems. "Often not all the requirements are fulfilled or what is completed is not true," he says.

Braida, for his part, dismisses the complaints against foreign fishing vessels operating in Montevideo. According to Braida, these complaints are not backed up. The agencies know the vessels they work with, Braida says, which are usually the same every year, and only do not assist them when there is an open legal case against one of them, he says.

The port of Montevideo and foreign ships

Jaime Coronel, Director of Aquatic Resources of Uruguay (DINARA), maintains that port controls have improved drastically in Montevideo since the signing in 2013 of the United Nations Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA).

"Seeing that a state increases controls, vessels with IUU fishing are not exposed and look for alternative ports. That may have happened in Uruguay in recent years," says Coronel. "Our controls have improved by up to 100% in some aspects. But we can't rule out all IUU fishing in port either," he says.

Marine conservation organizations agree that there have been some improvements in the port of Montevideo since the signing of the PSMA. However, they point out that controls and sanctions are still insufficient. There is a lack of inspectors in the port and DINARA should allocate more economic resources to control foreign vessels, they add.

A total of 46 fishing vessels were sanctioned by the Port of Montevideo between 2011 and 2022, according to a request for access to public information made by Mongabay Latam. Of the total, more than half are Uruguayan vessels. Only two Chinese ships appear on the list, one of which is the Lu Rong Yuan Yu 829, which was assisted by Verny. The sanction was in 2021 for "non-compliance with the Port Operations Regime", according to the document.

For Andrés Milessi, Uruguayan biologist and coordinator of the One Sea project, much remains to be done and there is a lack of concrete action on controls. Milko Schvartzman agrees. "In 2018 a Spanish boat (Playa Pesmar 1) was detained in Argentina for illegal fishing. It paid the fine, went to Montevideo with the cargo and nothing happened there," he adds.

In Eduardo Pucci's opinion, the Uruguayan government should instruct maritime agencies not to assist a foreign fishing vessel that has an open sanction or a long history of illegal activities, something he says does not happen much despite the country having signed the AMERP.

"While it is difficult to think of a legal responsibility of the maritime agency, things could definitely be very different in terms of its supervision and coordination with the Uruguayan port authorities," he added.

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Spanish by MongabayLatam on January 30, 2023. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: A South Korean fishing vessel at the Port of Montevideo in Uruguay / Credit: Milko Schvartzman.

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