Chinese vessels swarming, Ecuador rushes to protect the Galapagos

Published on
August 3, 2020

Ecuador is trying to protect parts of the Galpagos Marine Reserve in the wake of the arrival of hundreds of mainly Chinese fishing ships that are set up in international waters near the country’s exclusive economic zone.

“We will work in a regional position to defend and protect the exclusive economic zone around the Galapagos Marine Reserve, one of the richest fishing areas and a hotbed of life for the entire planet,” Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno posted on his Twitter account, followed with the hashtag #SOSGalápagos.

Moreno followed that tweet with news that he had created a public-private team – comprised of the recently appointed Foreign Affairs Minister Luis Gallegos, past WWF President and former Environment Minister Yolanda Kakabadse, and ecologist and former Quito mayor Roque Sevilla, among other specialists – charged with designing a protection strategy for the Galapagos Islands and respect for its maritime resources. The archipelago, bursting with marine life and unique flora and fauna, inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.

A fleet of some 260 fishing ships, most Chinese-flagged, has been set up for about the last three weeks in international waters just outside a 188-mile wide exclusive economic zone around the Galapagos.

“This fleet’s size and aggressiveness against marine species is a big threat to the balance of species in the Galapagos,” Kakabadse told the Guardian.

Tensions that were already high climbed a few notches after an adult whale shark, which is part of a satellite tracking program, stopped transmitting its location in the Galapagos area. Although there is no evidence that the animal was caught by the Chinese fleet, national authorities have said that it is too coincidental that the signal was lost at the same time the ships arrived at the site of its disappearance.

Ecuador Foreign Minister Luis Gallegos said in a statement the ministry had already contacted Beijing to advise Chinese authorities that Ecuador will defend its maritime rights. The ministry has undertaken consultations with other Latin American countries that border the Pacific Ocean, namely Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and Peru, to advance joint solutions and intensify diplomatic actions aimed at combating illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the region.

Nevertheless, Inty Grønneberg – ambassador for the environment and bio-economy at Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment and winner of the MIT Technological Review’s Inventor of the Year Lat-Am award in 2018 for having created turbines capable of removing and storing up to 80 tons per day of plastic waste found in rivers and seas – says that meeting with other countries is simply not enough.

“A firmer stance from the government is needed. It is not the first time that fishing vessels arrive in the Galapagos, and if they continue, they will seriously affect the ecosystem," he said on Twitter.

“Having depleted schools in domestic waters, fleets from industrialized countries travel to developing countries to meet demand. Their processes are NOT SUSTAINABLE and generate economic and ecological damage … The extraction fishing fleet’s capacity gives no room for recovery. [The] Galapagos’ ecosystem can be seriously affected,” he added in different posts. “The Chinese fleets not only affect the marine ecosystem; they are dumping garbage and waste with Asian labels is found in the Galapagos every day.”

Grønneberg and other environmental activists have called on the government to declare sovereignty over the Carnegie Submarine Range, which connects the 200 miles between mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos, in order to prevent the passage of foreign fishing fleets and guarantee the migration of a series of species between the mainland and the archipelago. For this to happen, scientific studies begun years ago by the Ecuadorian Army’s Oceanographic and Antarctic Institute need to conclude a geological connection exists between the continent and the islands. The institute’s time is running out, as the deadline for Ecuador to present the finalized study is September 2022.

The Ecuadorian branch of the WWF concurs; it is the first of eight recommendations the non-profit organization has proposed for the government to adopt. Other proposals include expanding reach of the exclusive economic zone, strengthening biodiversity and marine resource management, and employing more technology to identify and apprehend IUU ships.

The current incident is not the first instance of Chinese fishing fleets employing predatory practices in the country. In 2017, the Ecuadorean navy captured a Chinese vessel fishing within the Galapagos marine reserve. The Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 formed part of a fleet even larger than the current one and was found holding 300 tons of marine wildlife, mostly sharks, including hammerhead and silky sharks, which are in danger of extinction. After a long legal process, Ecuador’s navy assumed ownership of the ship. Ironically, in the coming days, the former Chinese-flagged ship will be one of the freighters used to transport cargo from Guayaquil to the Galapagos Islands, local daily Expreso reported.

According to the independent global think tank Overseas Development Institute, much of the distant-water fishing effort from China – ripe with unsustainable extraction and IUU fishing – takes place in the territorial waters of low-income nations after having depleted fish stocks in domestic waters.

“China’s [distant-water] fleet is the largest in the world, but little information is available about its actual size and the scale of its operations. It is also unclear whether the government of China has a comprehensive overview of China’s DWF fleet; vessel ownership is highly fragmented among many small companies and the fleet includes vessels registered in other jurisdictions,” ODI said in a report.

Other key findings of the report include:

  • With 16,966 vessels, China’s distant-water fleet is five to eight times larger than previous estimates.
  • Almost 1,000 Chinese distant-water vessels are registered in other countries.
  • The ownership and operational control of China’s distant-water fleet is both complex and opaque.
  • At least 183 vessels in China’s distant-water fleet are suspected of involvement in IUU fishing.

The NGO called on China’s government to take a leadership role in distant-water fleet governance, fishery sustainability and combating IUU. Steps in this direction may include improving vessel registration and transparency; stricter regulation and enforcement of distant-water fleet operations; and strengthening bilateral cooperation with states where Chinese vessels fish.

“Ecuador is the first country to recognize the rights of nature at a constitutional level; it is a signatory to several international agreements, UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] among them; and it is an active member of two [regional fisheries management organizations] in the region,” WWF said. “In view of the foregoing, today the country has the opportunity to assume a regional leading role in the face of this complex problem, taking concrete actions at the national level and promoting actions at the regional and global level that help curb this constant threat.” 

Ecuador is not the only country grappling with the arrival of Chinese vessels. Most recently, three industrial vessels linked to China – Jian Mei 1, Jian Mei 4, and Hong Chang 1 – fled Sierra Leonne instead of paying fines associated with violating national laws and regulations.

Sierra Leone isn’t the only West African country facing an influx of foreign vessels. Recently, Senegalese fishermen decried the potential licensing of 53 trawlers – most of which with Chinese ownership. The Ghana National Canoe Fishermen Council, as well, called out the potential licensing of three vessels – the Yu Feng 1,3, and 4.

Liberia also recently faced an influx of Chinese-based vessels. Fishing organizations there recently decried the arrival of six Chinese trawlers that would be capable of catching the entire sustainable catch of species target by the nation’s small-scale artisanal canoe fishers.

Photo courtesy of Ppito00/Shutterstock 

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