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Galapagos: Chinese Fishing Fleet Threatens Marine Life

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

Ziryan Aziz reviews the environmental concerns caused by over-fishing near one of the most bio-diverse areas in the world.

Photo by Alan Alquist

Since last month, a fleet of 260 Chinese fishing vessels has amassed at the boundary of the Galapagos Archipelago's Marine Protection Reserve.The fleet, which comes to the area every year, is one of the largest the Ecuadorian government has recorded, and the navy has been monitoring the ships to make sure no fishing takes place within the protected area.

Memories of an incident in 2017 when a Chinese reefer was caught with over 300 tons of shark and other protected species after entering Ecuadorian waters has the government on high alert. So far, the government has identified 243 of the 260 boats as having possibly been involved in illegal fishing practices in the past.

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Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) is highly destructive to global fish stocks, and often contradicts initiatives put in place by countries to protect their local fish populations. Since the fleet of vessels are in international waters, fishing there is legal under international law. 

The Chinese embassy in the Ecuadorian capital Quito has released a statement confirming that China has a "zero tolerance" policy towards illegal fishing, and that the country recognises the Galapagos Islands as an “ important natural reserve in Ecuador and a valuable cultural and natural heritage for all humanity”. The embassy maintains though that the ships “do not represent any threat to anyone and their legal rights must be guaranteed”.

Since the ships’ arrival, the Chinese and Ecuadorian governments have come to agreement to allow Ecuador's navy to keep watch over the Chinese boats, and China has pledged to ban fishing in international waters West of the reserve from September to November this year.

The Importance of the Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands are a province of Ecuador some 561 miles from the mainland. Famous for being the islands where Charles Darwin made observations which significantly influenced his On the Origins of Species, they are globally recognised for their scientific importance. The islands were made a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978 due to the diverse and unique range of animals and marine life.

In 1998, the Ecuadorian authorities set up a 27,000 square mile Reserve around the archipelago to protect the delicate and diverse wildlife that exists in and around the island's waterways. Specifically, whale, hammerhead, and silk sharks are numerous in the local water, as well as other endangered marine life. Ecuador fears that sharks and other marine life could be caught up by the trawlers whilst moving in and out of the Reserve.

In China, shark fins are highly valued as they are the main ingredient in shark fin soup, an old recipe going back to the Song Dynasty and considered a delicacy for the wealthy. With an ever-increasing rise in China’s seafood consumption, many Chinese fisheries are trying to meet the rising demand, and there is concern that the sharks of the Galapagos could be the next targets. 

A Regular Problem 

China is one of the most important fishing nations in the world. With the largest fleet of fishing vessels operating globally, China is the top exporter and third largest importer of seafood. However, the country’s record when it comes to illegal fishing has seen it ranked worst amongst 152 countries on the IUU Fishing Index.

In 2019, a BBC investigation uncovered Chinese fishing vessels near the small West-African country of Sierra Leone, despite being banned from pair trawling (the act of having two ships supporting a large net) in the area. This practice decimates local fish populations, leaving the people of one of the poorest African countries with an even smaller quantity of fish. 

Similar situations have arisen in other West-African countries, where 70% of China's African fishing boats routinely fish. A Greenpeace investigation from 2015 found that during the country's E-bola epidemic, 12 vessels were found illegally fishing in Guinea’s waters, and 74 across the region were identified as having entered prohibited areas and under-reporting their catch tonnage.

Closer to home, the country has been accused of defying United Nations sanctions on North Korea by allowing Chinese vessels to fish in its neighbour’s waters. It is believed that the government in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, offered fishing rights to Chinese fishermen in order to gain revenue lost as a result of the sanctions. A report by Global Fishing Watch estimated that in 2018, the quantities of pacific flying squid caught were almost as large as Japan and South Korea’s catch combined due to the illegal fishing, raising concerns about the intensity and environmental impact of such destructive methods. 

Whilst China is not the only country that has a problem with its vessels being involved in illegal fishing, the magnitude of the problem, the intensity of its fishing practices abroad, and the Chinese demand for an ever-increasing supply of seafood is a recipe for disaster, both politically and environmentally.


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