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Chinese fishing boats approaching Galapagos: what’s being done, what species they endanger and who comprises the fleet

Published on July 06, 2021

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The Más Galapagos collective alerted, on the morning of June 29th, that—through the Global Fishing Watch platform—it detected the arrival of the first Chinese-flagged fishing boat in the vicinity of Galapagos.

This vessel is the first of the nearly 300 that make up the international fishing fleet that arrives in this area every year and causes concern and discomfort both to the Government of Ecuador and to environmental organizations that have denounced the “indiscriminate” fishing methods of these vessels.

In a recent interview, the Minister of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition, Gustavo Manrique, said that the Government together with the Armed Forces are constantly monitoring the fleet.

“There are three blocks of ships that can add up to about 300 ships. There is an activated committee of the Foreign Ministry, the ministries of Defense, Production, Environment and the Ministry of Communication. We meet almost daily. We have the entire contingent that is working so that this fleet does not enter, and if a ship enters (Ecuadorian marine territory), the full weight of the law will fall on it regardless of its flag,” said Manrique.

Manrique said that so far it has not been proven that these vessels have transgressed Ecuadorian maritime territory, since they fish in the international marine corridor. In addition, he indicated that this fleet is composed not only of ships of Chinese origin but also of vessels with “flags of convenience.”

The Mas Galapagos collective has denounced the actions of this fleet and its non-selective fishing methods, harming protected species such as sharks. The boats are located on the outskirts of the Ecuadorian archipelago because they know that the Galapagos is a hotbed of migratory species. The organization has called for the marine reserve to be expanded to give greater protection to the sanctuary.

What’s being done by Ecuador?

The authorities of Ecuador and China met online on Friday, July 2, 2021, to discuss the fishing activities of that country’s vessels on the high seas, near the Galapagos Islands.

The Ecuadorian Government took advantage of the bilateral dialogues held in August and December 2020 to address this and other fisheries cooperation.

The Ecuadorian delegation was chaired by the Undersecretary of Sovereignty and Neighborhood Relations of the Foreign Ministry, María Gabriela Troya, and made up of the Vice Minister of Aquaculture and Fisheries, Andrés Arens; the Ecuadorian Ambassador to China, Carlos Larrea; and delegates of the National Navy.

The Chinese delegation was chaired by the director of the Fisheries Bureau of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, Li Shumin.

In the virtual appointment, the importance of protecting the unique ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands was discussed. In this regard, the Chinese delegation reiterated its willingness to respect international agreements, the sovereignty of Ecuador and maintain strict control over its vessels to ensure that they do not enter the national exclusive economic zone. Also, that they do not engage in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities.

Ecuador highlighted that the conservation of the Galapagos Islands and the protection of biodiversity, “constitute a shared responsibility with the international community and reported on the actions of strict monitoring and control that the Ecuadorian Navy maintains in the jurisdictional waters of the country, in order to ensure compliance with international regulations.”

[On August 14, 2017, the Ecuadorian navy captured a Chinese vessel with around 300 tons of fish. The Multicompetent Judicial Unit of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, in Galapagos, handed down a four-year prison sentence to the captain of the ship. In addition, his close associates received three years the other members of the crew were given a 1-year sentence. The court also imposed a fine of $5.9 million for the material repair of the Galapagos National Park. ]

The country representatives also proposed to establish a mechanism for the exchange of scientific information between experts from both countries, to assist in the decision-making process on the implementation of moratoriums and other measures to protect marine resources, a proposal that was accepted by China.

What’s being done by activists?

In addition to the government’s subdued efforts to stop the Chinese fishing fleet from entering the waters between Ecuador’s protected areas, a legal action was presented on July 5th, before the Assembly and the Foreign Ministry of Ecuador.

On Monday morning, the Coordinator of Organizations for the Defense of Nature and the Environment (Cedenma) presented an administrative claim to the Foreign Ministry for the Government to act against the presence of the foreign fishing fleet in the limit of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Galapagos.

Gustavo Redín, President of Cedenma, said that there is a lack of control of the international fishing fleet, that neither the rights of nature nor food sovereignty are being respected and the Government must act based on international agreements and other mechanisms.

María Cristina Cely, Director of the One Health Ecuador organization, pointed out that the presence of the fleet generates an impact on the transzonal marine biodiversity, with the fishing of species such as sharks, cetaceans; and that it is very easy for a fleet of these characteristics, which has a permanent presence in the Pacific, to turn off its GPS location system and enter the EEZ.

“Illegal fishing breaks countless regulations, not only is it whether or not the EEZ was entered (…). There is talk that by 2050 the oceans will be empty if nothing is done about it,” she added.

Ricardo Crespo, Cedenma’s lawyer, said that Ecuador has to set a precedent for industrial fishing to be sustainable, establish a clear strategy at the international level and propose a transparent and proactive agenda. He added that he presented to the legal challenge to the Foreign Ministry because it is the governing body of foreign policy. The document asks the Ministry to present a “proactive and immediate” strategy to control the situation, according to what international treaties mandate.

If that does not happen, Crespo said, they will go to the Constitutional Court to file an action for non-compliance with the provisions of the law.

Crespo says that he expects the Ministry to present a strategic emergency plan for accumulated environmental damage that is affecting the territorial marine areas.

Cedenma’s lawyer says that the Ministry should propose an immediate strategy of action that includes inspections of vessels suspected of undeclared fishing; more diplomatic actions with China so that Convemar forces its ships to “not waste marine resources;” diplomatic actions with other countries; and other important measures that are framed in international law.

According to Crespo, in the last 4 years in which there has been a frequent presence of boats near the islands, there is no evidence that the decisions the authorities make has had any impact. He says that the country “remains in the argument that as they are not entering our area there is no problem.” That is why they recommend using international law to take care of the country’s seas and avoid disasters in an area as delicate as Galapagos.

Finally, Manolo Morales, president of the Inter-American Association for the Defense of the Environment (AIDA), pointed out that it seeks to exert local and regional pressure through civil society, who hope that the Government will cease the argument that they have not entered the ZEE and that you can have more accurate information on the subject.

“We have problems with the inaction of the States, it is not only Ecuador. There is no transparency, the Government has an ethical, political and legal obligation to act,” he added.

According to the Organic Administrative Code, the Foreign Ministry has thirty working days to respond to this claim.

Later, the activists went to the Assembly’s Biodiversity Commission to speak about the effects that the presence of the foreign fishing fleet brings to marine biodiversity.

What species are they endangering?

Marine species roam without complying with the limits of reserves and the borders defined by the territorial sea of ​​the countries. The case of Ecuador includes the 200 miles of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of its continental territorial sea, plus a vast insular zone that borders the Galapagos archipelago.

But between the two there is a 200-mile corridor that is under the jurisdiction of international waters in which boats with flags of various nationalities, mostly of Chinese origin, fish.

Their presence may affect marine species including migratory species that are in danger of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

On June 29, 2021, the Más Galapagos collective alerted that the Global Fishing Watch platform could detect the arrival of the first Chinese-flagged fishing boat in the vicinity of Galapagos. It is the first to arrive of the nearly 300 that make up the international fishing fleet that arrives in this area every year.

The Galapagos species affected by fishing activities are:

  1. More than 40 species of sharks.
    Among them, the hammerhead, whale, and whitetip shark, which are still abundant around the islands of the archipelago and which swim outside the marine reserve and the insular EEZ of Ecuador, at the mercy of the local fishing fleet, from the region and international; 90% of all affected shark species are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

    Sharks are caught by the demand for shark fin soup in Asia, which can cost over $80 in China.

  2. The giant squid.
    There is no population study of this resource in the area, says Cely; it is assumed that with the degree of exploitation of the Chinese fleet, overfishing could push this species into a dangerous situation which affects animals that feed on it such as cetaceans, sharks and tuna.
  3. The sea cucumber.
    In this case, says Cely, it is necessary to analyze what will be the impact of the opening of fishing on their populations. “The overfishing of the international and local fleet not only affects the species it extracts, but also those that feed on it and those that fall into their nets due to incidental fishing, so everything goes a little further.”

    The Ministry of the Environment and representatives of the four artisanal fishing cooperatives of the archipelago agreed to start the fishing season on Monday, July 12, with a quota of 600,000 sea cucumbers (Isostichopus fuscus).

  1. Sea turtles.
    They are victims of bycatch from vessels using longlines. This fishing gear includes thousands of hooks in a long line that covers kilometers and that does not distinguish between the target species of the fleet and the others that may be protected. Dolphins, sea lions and sharks also fall into these.
  1. Seabirds.
    The Galapagos albatross, whose population is in critical condition, is one of the most endangered species of seabirds in the archipelago. It is also trapped in the middle of the fishing nets when the specimens make their dives in the sea in search of fish.
  1. Stingrays.
    This species is usually caught by incidental fishing. “There was recently a video of a female entangled in a longline; they get caught and drown,” says Cely.

Who makes up the fleet?

That initial boat that arrived on June 29th, Shun Xing 18, was one of the first in the fleet that arrives every year at this time to fish near the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago with one of the greatest diversities on the planet, and where industrial fishing is prohibited.

Are they all Chinese ships?

No. The fleet has Chinese, Japanese and South Korean flag ships. However, its largest percentage is made of vessels from China, which is the country that fishes the most in international waters, according to information from the Stimson international research center collected by the Wall Street Journal.

How is the great fleet made up and how does it act? 

The large fleet has industrial fishing boats. Ricardo Crespo from Cedenma, says that environmentalists suspect that the fleet is fishing with industrial longlines. In addition to longline boats, Crespo says there are jigger boats, which fish for giant squid and other species.

Longline is a fishing system that is prohibited in the Galapagos, but in other countries it has not completely disappeared. It is made of a floating main line – which can measure from two to tens of kilometers – from which other secondary and vertical lines are born, at the ends of which dozens of circle hooks are placed. Fishermen prefer it because it is more profitable than other fishing systems, it requires less effort, and it carries away everything in its grasp — even protected species.

Due to its size and its inability to distinguish between species, its level of bycatch is high. In areas of high species diversity, such as the Galapagos, it could put marine animals in danger of becoming extinct at risk. In 1997, the first time it was used near the islands, more than half of the catch was for different species of sharks, most included in the list of threatened species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Chinese fishing fleet is the largest in the world. And analysis of transponder and global vessel registration data – done by London’s Overseas Development Institute – says there are 17,000 Chinese vessels fishing outside their country’s territorial waters. Its closest competitors are Taiwan and South Korea, which have some 2,500 vessels between them.

Also, Chinese ships are big. A study by the Yale School of the Environment says that in one week, these vessels catch the same number of fish that local boats in Africa or Latin America could catch in a year.

Where are the boats now?

The first ship, under the Chinese flag, is approximately 300 nautical miles from the Insular Exclusive Economic Zone (ZEEI), the area of ​​the ocean over which a country has jurisdiction, according to the General Secretariat of Communication of the Presidency (Segcom). Global Fishing Watch, a satellite monitoring tool for fishing activity around the world, identified that most of the boats that fish in the area are located in the southwestern part of the archipelago, in international waters.

The ZEEI extends from the outer limit of the territorial sea – 12 miles from the base line of the islands – to 200 nautical miles. In the ZEEI, the Ecuadorian State has sovereign rights for the purposes of exploration, exploitation and conservation of natural results in the waters, soil and subsoil of the sea. In other words, the country can decide whether or not to allow the free transit of vessels in this area.

In addition, the boats are close to the Galapagos Marine Reserve (RMG). According to Segcom, the first ship is 470 nautical miles from the reserve (a strip of 40 nautical miles) in which all species are protected, and industrial fishing is prohibited.

Why are there international ships near Galapagos?

Crespo says that in several countries there is a shortage of fish near their coasts. That is why there are many international fleets that “pursue more fishing” in areas with greater wealth of marine diversity such as Galapagos. “They are taking advantage of the wealth of fish that enter and leave the marine reserve,” according to Crespo.

They do it between June and October because their activity depends on the marine currents and at this time the diversity is strengthened by the crossing of marine currents – from Cromwell, Humboldt, Panama and North and South Equatorial – in the islands. That allows them to have more fish, especially giant squid, according to Crespo. This animal is the most abundant marine invertebrate in the southeast Pacific. The species migrates annually from Mexican waters to the Chilean coast. According to Global Fishing Watch, in Galapagos, this species is threatened by the fleet of ships with Chinese, Japanese and South Korean flags.

Crespo says that international fleets fish in international waters with “very little control.” According to him, it is very evident that this fishing is not sustainable, indiscriminate and does not comply with the international legal framework.

What is sustainable fishing?

Sustainable fishing is “looking for responsible and sustainable use of aquatic resources,”

according to the Organic Law for the Development of Aquaculture and Fisheries. That includes prioritizing the implementation of measures to conserve and restore populations of captured species.

According to Crespo, this is not the case with the international fleet that fishes near the islands every year. “We suspect that several times the ships have turned off the detection systems.” In other words, they cannot be traced in the event that they break into the Exclusive Economic Zone. On June 29th, Minister Manrique said that if the ships breach the limits of the ZEEI or the Galapagos Maritime Reserve, the State will take “the pertinent actions.”

What measures is the government taking

On June 29, 2021, the Ecuadorian government said that it monitors vessels that are near the islands “continuously.” In addition, a statement from Segcom says that they are carrying out air, nautical and technological controls to guarantee that they do not enter Ecuadorian waters.

Segcom said that since May 24, 2021, when President Guillermo Lasso took office, an inter-ministerial committee was activated to “periodically evaluate” cases such as the foreign fleet near Galapagos. It is made up of the Ministries of: International relations; Defense; Production, Foreign Trade, Investments; Fishing, Environment, Water and Ecological Transition; and the General Secretariat of Communication of the Presidency

In addition, Manrique said that “today’s technology allows us to track where they are, the speeds at which they navigate and other characteristics with an exact level of precision, which allows us to make timely decisions.” In addition, the government plans to invest in other technological tools. The government said that Ecuador “established an agreement with Canada that allows it to have a technological tool to track ships, even when they turn off their navigation equipment.”

Yakov César Cedeño, an expert in military operations, says that this “contributes, but it is not really significant,” because even if they know exactly where the vessel is, the country does not have the capacity to intercept it and obtain evidence in case the limits are violated in the ZEEI. Some of the reasons why Ecuador’s possibilities are limited are the lack of economic resources, personnel, boats, among others.

What does international law say?

There are international norms and treaties that regulate fishing worldwide, including in international waters such as the Code of Conduct of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the organization that coordinates policy for international fishing. There are also fisheries management commissions such as the Southeast Pacific Commission and other international treaties.

Lawyer Crespo says that even some international treaties oblige States and vessels that circulate in international waters to fish sustainably in the pavilions near marine reserves and exclusive zones.

He says that one of the main international regulations that should be applied in this case is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Convemar), a document that protects sustainable and rational fishing activity. Crespo says that even though they are in international waters, the Convemar also has demands on the high seas. The agreement says that the populations of the species caught must be maintained or restored at levels that guarantee sustainability.

There are also laws in Ecuador that could help solve the problem. Article 9 of the law for the development of aquaculture and fishing says, “the norms adopted by the State, to ensure the sustainable use of hydrobiological resources in jurisdictional waters, will also be applied in the area adjacent to the exclusive economic zone.” In other words, the vessels that fish near the EEZ must also comply with regulations to guarantee the sustainability of the species, even if they are not fishing within the zone.

Thus, the lawyer says, it will be possible to “protect straddling and highly migratory fish species and other living marine resources associated or dependent on them.” In addition, the safety of the species that are associated with the trophic chain – in which each species feeds on the preceding one and is food for the next – of the species of the exclusive economic zone, will be guaranteed.

Crespo says they are coordinating activities with lawyers from Argentina. In that country, a non-governmental organization filed an appeal before the Supreme Court of Argentina. It did so for the Court to order the State to adopt measures to curb illegal fishing in Argentina’s exclusive economic zone in the Atlantic.

1 Comment

  1. I would like to say that 20 years ago I was in Madagascar and I met 2 Indonesian men while having lunch. I had traveled through Indonesia for many months and could speak some Indonesian. We talked for a while and they invited me on the ship they were working on. At the time I also worked on ships as a merchant seaman and was on vacation. They took me to a large fishing vessel. It was Japanese and was the called the mother ship. The captain and the Chief engineer were Japanese. They had huge freezers on board and caught everything with huge nets. The things they caught and didn’t want they threw back into the ocean but much of it was already dead. These commercial fishing vessels kill so much sea life it’s a crime. And the ships are so much bigger now. I have also been in China many times on my ship. There are so many people there they need and want all the fish in the ocean! Seafood is a huge part of their lives.They need to be stopped before it’s too late. I feel for the world.


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