To all shark lovers. The largest area of shark biomass is currently being decimated by a fleet of 260 Chinese fishing vessels. The scary thing is, this is legal. The scarier thing is, this has happened for the last three years. It CANNOT continue.
The massive fishing fleet, identified as the yellow dots on the image below, has placed itself in the international waters between the Galapagos Islands economic exclusion zone (EEZ) and Ecuador's territorial border. The strong currents of the Humboldt carry rich nutrients, attracting marine fauna such as manta rays, tuna, squid, turtles and birds, as well as a plethora of sharks. Sitting in this biological corridor lies the Chinese distant-water fishing (DWF) vessels.
They arrived on 6th July and, as of writing (4th August), are still there. This fleet has returned to the Galapagos for the fourth consecutive year, with each vessel processing and storing an unimaginable amount of marine life.
The 260 vessels in the Galapagos are only a tiny portion of the 17,000 DWF fleet owned by China, believed to be the largest in the world. The fleet isn’t specific to the Galapagos and has been reported previously in Argentinian, West African and North Korean waters. Factory ships load cargo onto mother ships, allowing them to continue to decimate and destroy everything they come into contact with. Mother ships collect the catches of other vessels meaning long-liners can stay at sea for almost a year without ever reaching port. The fleet also has floating cooling ships and fuel tankers. They truly mean it when they call it the ‘floating city’. ODI released a report in June 2020 stating that 1,000 Chinese DWF vessels are known to be registered in other countries, sailing under foreign flags, historically registered as Panamanian, North Korean, Vietnamese, African, or Argentinian.
The Frente Insular Collective estimates that there are 100,000 hooks on each vessel, calculated from the length of the ships. Initially, it was not confirmed whether the fleet was catching squid but horrifying videos of dead sharks and shark fins washing up along the coastlines of islands put an end to such theories. It’s not only sharks that have been found beached, on 2nd August a humpback whale was found dead on the shores of Ecuador.
The Charles Darwin Foundation reported on 30th July 2020 that researchers had observed a broadnose sevengill shark (Notorynchus cepedianus) and bluntnose sixgill (Hexanchus griseus) in the deep waters of the Floreana Island, Ecuador for the first time. These highly primitive sharks were observed in October 2019 and it begs the question, are they still there now? What is this fishing fleet destroying before we even know it’s there?
All this destruction before even considering that the beaches have already been found spoilt, not only with the bodies of dead marine life, but with Chinese origin plastic litter. According to locals, hundreds of plastic bottles are being collected on nearby beaches such as Tortuga Bay, Playa Mansa and La Ratonera in Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz Island). They have a 5 kilometre daily walk to remove this trash before even more damage is done to the once pristine waters of the Galapagos.
The fleet is not only decimating populations of threatened and endangered species but depleting maritime resources for local nations, including both food and tourism. The Galapagos depends on tourism, sharks and other marine life are a vital part of that.
Why isn’t anything being done?
The fleet is in international waters, at the edge of the Galápagos Marine Reserve where fishing is unregulated. Ecuador’s Navy is said to be monitoring the fleet 24/7 but what does this mean? It means they’re just watching to see whether they cross that border. It is only if territorial borders or EEZ’s are crossed that countries have jurisdiction to step in. When those boundaries were crossed in 2017 the subsequent seizure of cargo ship Fu Yuan Lent 999 revealed 300 tons of marine life. This included 6,600 sharks, many of which were protected species such as the whale shark.
It has been previously confirmed that these fleets turn off the location device on vessels. Known as ‘dark’ vessels, they can only be seen with more advanced technologies or aerial video footage. Without knowing where these ‘dark’ vessels are, can we truly be sure that the borders are not being crossed?
UPDATE: On 5th August China entered discussion with Ecuador, read the outcomes here!
On 2nd August US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement…
“The People’s Republic of China subsidizes the world’s largest commercial fishing fleet, which routinely violates the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of coastal states, fishes without permission, and overfishes licensing agreements. Given this unfortunate record of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, rule-breaking, and wilful environmental degradation, it is more important than ever that the international community stands together for the rule of law and insists on better environmental stewardship from Beijing.
The Ecuadorian government has done just that in raising the alarm about the hundreds of PRC-flagged vessels fishing near Ecuador’s important Galápagos marine reserve and harvesting endangered sharks for their fins, along with many other protected species. We firmly support Ecuador’s efforts to ensure PRC-flagged vessels do not engage in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and stand with States whose economies and natural resources are threatened by PRC-flagged vessels’ disregard for the rule of law and responsible fishing practices.”
What’s already been done?
Whilst Ecuador are currently saying there isn’t enough evidence of illegal activity to peacefully inspect vessel and their catches, President Lenín Moreno has formally complained to China and announced the creation of a team to protect the Galapagos Islands and its marine resources. This team is made up of Ecuador's Foreign Minister, Luis Gallegos, along with environmentalists Roque Sevilla and Yolanda Kakabadse. This team is responsible for designing the defence strategy for the country's maritime riches.
The claim that there is not enough evidence of illegal activity was however made before videos or finned whale sharks were found on local beaches.
Who’s supplying the fleet with food and fuel? Peru has been mentioned as a potential supplier, but is unconfirmed. It is legal to sell these resources to the fleet however it is also legal for them to refuse to sell these fleets of mass destruction the fuel they need. So, the question still remains, who is fuelling this operation?
Which port is accepting cargo containing endangered and protected species? Often the fleets will land cargo at the nearest port and have it shipped to Asia rather than transport it themselves. Is this a route to tackling the problem?
Ecuador wants to declare a protected zone and ban on overfishing the precious waters that are not currently classified as an EEZ or territorial waters. This would mitigate a return next year from the fleet and allow Ecuador to legally inspect or seize vessels. It cannot do this alone, however together with other neighbouring Pacific states it may be possible to create a binding international treaty. To join forces and tackle new regulations as a collective is a more powerful approach than Ecuador vs China.
In years past Ecuador has changed the status over 1 million square km of its waters from ‘territorial’ to ‘EEZ’. SOS Galapagos explains that territorial zones having very defined rules, are highly protected and easy to regulate. The EEZ’s have a set of rules but countries can easily gain permission to enter and fish. Reversing this status change would protect more of the surrounding oceans, however it does not solve the problem as the fleet hasn’t been reported inside the EEZ and are staying in international waters.
Both of these resolutions are lengthy endeavours that require international cooperation and public pressure.
The ‘public pressure’ is where you and I come in. Spreading awareness that these fleets exist and where they are is an important step. Highlighting the loopholes they take advantage of and the protected areas they are straying horrifyingly close to all adds up. Need proof? Only a few days ago China put a temporary ban on squid fishing in areas known to be spawning grounds for squid. This was due to public outcry and pressure. There are passionate people out there, fighting for change, setting up petitions, lobbying governments, raising awareness and creating innovative solutions to these problems. These marine corridors and the rest of our precious oceans need to be protected. A small thing you can do right now is showing your support for the (very condensed list of) campaigns and organisations battling daily to save our sharks and the oceans below.
A few resources
Mike Pompeo's response: www.state.gov/on-chinas-predatory-fishing-practices-in-the-galapagos/
BBC video: https://youtu.be/24UL3Ja1xVg
Chinese fishing practices article: www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3096038/china-bans-squid-catch-some-overseas-waters-overfishing?fbclid=IwAR0EnmlX7ynpPZdtaDdFehjuNHyjGRC29EjQUQR4PE4RCgARA6GOisuFgfg