Seven years ago, Juan Cristina of Uruguay’s UDELAR university received an offer to buy an old research vessel from the Institute of Oceanography in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Reluctantly, he declined, citing scant resources.
However, earlier this year, the Uruguayan navy offered UDELAR a different boat and China stepped in with an agreement to fit it with an onboard laboratory.
Academics and representatives from the National Secretariat of Science and Technology flew to China two months ago to sign an agreement on oceanographic cooperation. But the move has raised eyebrows given the impact of Chinese long-distance fishing fleets in South Atlantic waters.
Uruguay has more ocean territory than land after the UN designated a 300-mile extension to its continental shelf in 2016. But the country faces huge challenges with studying its marine territory. According to Cristina, it needs more rigorous research to inform policies on regulating fishing.
Until now, Uruguayan oceanographers have had to procure vessels from the navy or hire fishing vessels. These have no onboard laboratories and are ill-equipped for continental-shelf or deep-sea oceanography, explained marine biologist Dr Ernesto Brugnoli.
Yet, China’s interest in supplying equipment to Uruguay in order to better understand its marine resources has aroused suspicion. Sources involved in the agreement have told chinadialogue ocean that there may be an expectation of political favours being provided “in return”.
“China’s fishing fleet is considered one of the most predatory in the world,” said Carlos Mazal of the Uruguayan Center for International Relations, referring to its illegal, unreported or unregulated practices. Mazal added that China is seeking to establish a South Atlantic fishing base from which to refuel.
Chinese fishing companies are already seeking to build a controversial port in Montevideo, which would include a free trade zone and a fish processing plant. Conservationists fear that the project would facilitate the overexploitation of South Atlantic marine resources.
“China’s interest is not fishing alone. It’s geopolitical,” he said.
The vessel in question
The Uruguayan navy’s “ROU 04” was built in 1965. Until now, its purpose has been to transport supplies to an Antarctic base on King George Island.
Rear Admiral Manuel Burgos, president of the Uruguayan Antarctic Institute, said that between the southern hemisphere’s summer months (December to April) the ship will continue to shuttle between Uruguay and Antarctica, but scientists will conduct onboard oceanographic research.
Dedicating ROU 04 to science “is a great change”, Burgos said. He added that the vessel will support research on the continental shelf and other Uruguayan territorial areas, as well as in the Antarctic, enabling “quality science afloat”.
The ship is undergoing a 14-month renovation as the navy makes improvements and the laboratory is constructed.
The navy is keen to execute the project as quickly as possible and sees Chinese cooperation and financial resources as key.
“The best thing that can happen is that the ship is handled by the navy … and they [China] can collaborate,” said Cristina.
The form of the laboratory has not been finalised. It will either be a mobile station in a container on the deck or a more permanent one in a refurbished area below deck.
Money permitting, the researchers also hope for equipment to take samples of sediment and water at great depths.
Talks between UDELAR and the navy to advance the project will take place in the coming months. Burgos said that work may be completed in time for the 2020-2021 Antarctic voyages.
Signatories to the 1980 Antarctic Treaty, Uruguay and China both have bases on King George Island, at the northernmost tip of the white continent. The two countries have also signed an agreement to collaborate on research missions at their bases, located just 15 minutes apart overland.
Back in April, Uruguay and China agreed on the development of a first joint laboratory, on agricultural issues.
This second, oceanographic, lab will work through UDELAR. To advance, they are waiting for China to designate which university will be the interlocutor. Most likely it will be the Oceanographic University of Qingdao, with which Uruguay has already cooperated.
“I see it as a great possibility for the country. It is an opportunity for those who have dedicated their lives to the study of the oceans,” said Álvaro Mombrú, Uruguay’s science and technology secretary.