The sinking of a Taiwanese trawler by the Argentinian Coast Guard last week has brought into focus the problem of control over fishery resources in the South Atlantic and the delicate issue of sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. Argentina and Britain went to war over the islands, referred to here as the Malvinas, four years ago.
After the Argentinian surrender to British forces in June 1982, Britain imposed a 150-mile exclusion zone around the islands -- which remains in force.
The British-mandated zone applies to Argentinian ships, but not to vessels of other nations. The result has been a bonanza for large-scale fishing operations.
In the years since the conflict, Argentina claims Britain has looked the other way while foreign fishing fleets used the zone as a base for dramatically expanded activities. Analysts say that, since Argentina does not want to provoke Britain by entering the zone, the fleets have been able to use the area as a safe haven -- a place where they can flee to when the Argentinians catch them fishing in coastal waters outside the zone.
The number of fishing boats, sailing under the flags of Japan, Taiwan, the Soviet Union, Spain, and Poland, has multiplied 10 times in the region since 1982.
``We have detected as many as some 220 foreign trawlers operating in the zone,'' says the spokesman for Argentina's Foreign Ministry. ``Many of them are using suction-systems of fishing rather than nets. This does not allow any discrimination between the mature fish and the young fish, with the result that they are ruining the fish stocks for future generations.''
The recent incident of the Taiwanese trawler is reported to have occurred some 25 miles outside the 150-mile exclusion zone.
On May 27, before the boat was sunk, Argentina's Foreign Ministry called together the ambassadors of the various nations that maintain fleets in the South Atlantic -- to inform them that Coast Guard patrolling would be intensified, and that any foreign trawlers found fishing in Argentinian waters would face heavy penalties.
The penalties include fines of $250,000, the confiscation of catch and gear, and even the taking of the boat itself. A Japanese trawler was detained on May 10 and a Polish ship on May 20. Both vessels apparently had been fishing inside the 200-mile coastal zone off the Argentinian mainland, in which Argentina restricts international fishing.
What was different in the Taiwanese case is that the trawler was apparently working outside the 200-mile coastal limit, but within a 200-mile perimeter around the Falklands. Argentina has claimed that, since the Malvinas belong to them, the 200-mile coastal zone applies to the islands as well.
But, according to one diplomat who was present at last week's Foreign Ministry briefing, it was not made clear whether the coastal limit applied only to the waters off the Argentinian mainland, or whether it also included the waters around the disputed islands.
Taiwan has announced that it is withdrawing all its trawlers from the South Atlantic in protest. However, other nations seem unlikely to follow the move, and further incidents could occur if Argentina insists on policing fisheries within a 200-mile limit along the coast and around the islands.
Britain, for its part, has offered to enter into a multilateral fishing agreement under the auspices of the United Nations to protect the South Atlantic fish stocks. Argentina, however, is ambivalent toward such a move and is pursuing unilateral agreements with the different fleets operating in the region.
Talks on a multilateral agreement are due to be renewed in September, and diplomatic observers say that Argentina's increasing pressure on the foreign fleets may be aimed at hastening the signing of bilateral deals, with a view to circumventing a multilateral agreement.
The difference is a crucial one for Argentina. Although a multilateral agreement might not affect either Britain's or Argentina's claim to the Falklands, a series of bilateral deals between Argentina and other states over fishing privileges in the waters surrounding the islands would strengthen Argentina's claim.