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  • Writer's pictureHarriet

Chinese DWF Fleet in the Galapagos: what action is being taken?

Updated: Oct 15, 2020

As of publishing, it’s day 43 of the Chinese distant water fishing (DWF) fleet plundering the Galapagos of its marine life. They arrived on 6th July and announced in a meeting with Ecuador held on 5th August, that they will not be leaving until 1st September, and then, only for three months. Many are asking how they can be removed earlier than this, and what can be done to protect these waters, both now and in the future. We intend to answer those questions below. Some are also asking, why China's voluntary removal isn't until September, but that is one question that is easily answered. In previous years, China had already left the Galapagos waters by then due to natural dips in the populations of target species such as squid, tuna and sharks. The fleet moves to the South Atlantic to deplete the seas there instead and as such, would never have been there anyway. The statement is entirely for show. The remainder of China’s promises made during the meeting were baby steps in the right direction, but nowhere near enough. This sounds most unpromising for life surrounding the islands, however, there is hope.

If this is the first your hearing of this,  head here for an overview.

So, what’s happened since then?

 Ecuador has confirmed that it has become a member of the Global Ocean Alliance (GOA). The GOA is a UK-led international coalition with 26 member countries, that is pushing for at least 30% of the global ocean to become MPAs by 2030. The current estimate is around 10%. This is important to the current situation as Ecuador is attempting to extend its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), closing the gap between Ecuador and the Galapagos islands. The triangle of high seas between the Galapagos, Ecuador and Costa Rica would be declared a protected area and marine reserve, meaning stronger enforcement and protection of the biological corridor which many migratory species make use of. This is great in theory but many question whether Ecuador has the resources to increase the surveillance and monitoring needed. The support of GOA is a step in the right direction alongside a resolution (discussed in further detail below) by the National Assembly supporting the extension of the Galapagos Marine Reserve by 188 nautical miles. 

UNESCO finally released a statement, which reminds Ecuador that “the protection of properties on the World Heritage List is the duty of the international community as a whole” and that they “have the obligation to refrain from any deliberate measures which might damage directly or indirectly the cultural and natural heritage protected under the Convention.”. The full statement can be found here.

An update that is slightly less optimistic is that the number of Chinese vessels has increased from 260 to 340, coinciding with an increase in whale carcasses, shark carcasses, plastic litter and oil drums covered in Chinese markings washing up on nearby shorelines. It has also come to light that Chinese fleets have been fishing the Galapagos waters for many years, well over the three years previously reported, only with smaller fleets and as such has gone unreported.

The image above is a screenshot from Marine Traffic on 18th August 11am BST. The mass of orange ships, larger than the Galapagos itself, is the fleet.

The Chinese DWF fleet

China’s DWF vessels spend more time fishing than the next ten biggest countries combined, they fish over 90% of the world’s oceans, and are the largest in the world totalling 16,996 vessels. Around 2% of its fleet is currently in the Galapagos, the remainder can be found around the rest of the world. With its own fish supply seemingly decimated, they are forced to travel vast distances to plunder populations elsewhere. Historically China has played a large part in destroying Ghana’s local fishing industry, a similar story can be told about North Korean fisheries.

Something promising however is that China’s DWF fleets are only economically viable because of generous governmental fuel subsidies given to the owners of fleets. In 2013, the Chinese Government awarded $6.1 billion to fisheries in the form of fuel subsidies. To highlight the reliance on these by Chinese fleets, the Chinese government withold subsidies for a year as punishment for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices. This seems somewhat hypocritical as 95% of Chinese fisheries subsidies were identified as harmful to sustainability. With this in mind, let’s discuss the UN’S Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). Target 14.6 aims to “prohibit certain forms of fisheries subsidies which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing, and eliminate subsidies that contribute to IUU fishing, and refrain from introducing new such subsidies, recognising that appropriate and effective special and differential treatment for developing and least developed countries should be an integral part of the WTO fisheries subsidies negotiation”.

This is useful for two reasons:

  1. In July 2020, China requested a ‘Developing Nation Status’ allowing special and differential treatment in regard to WTO fishery subsidies. Lobbying for and ensuring China’s request for a ‘Developing Nation Status’ is denied would also ensure that its current subsidy regime is not maintained.

  2. Removing and reforming subsidies is altogether possible if fleets are shown to be contributing to overcapacity and overfishing and/or contributing to IUU fishing. Both of these have been documented previously in the vessels currently in the Galapagos. It has also been reported that long liners and trawlers are not profitable based on the revenue they have declared even with subsidies so it is suspected that the only way for these fleets to be making a profit is through IUU fishing.

If the above measures could be implemented it would be a great start in tackling the fleets on a long-term basis. It is also worth noting that, the WTO have the power to stop these subsidies. Other targets specified within the SDG Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources, are also relevant. But what else can do done?

An infographic on some of the other targets in SDG Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.

Potential legislative changes to protect the Galapagos

The Ecuadorian National Assembly (NA) is the legislative branch of the government and has the power to pass laws. They have drafted a resolution which has been approved by 126 to 2, which…

  • condemns IUU fishing by foreign vessels between Ecuador’s EEZ and the Galapagos

  • allows investigation of foreign vessels (despite China having already agreed to this)

  • requests increased monitoring and surveillance of vessels

  • requests investigations as to how fuel is being supplied to the Chinese fleet

… as well as the all important expansion of the GMR mentioned earlier. All investigations must be reported back to the NA.

Article 21 of the UNs Fish Stocks Agreement states that any nearby country most affected by the presence of overfishing of trans-territorial and migratory fish can approach vessels in international waters to verify whether they’re using prohibited fishing practices. It is also possible for Ecuador to board vessels for inspection and take vessels to the nearest port if evidence of "falsifying or concealing the markings, identity or registration of a fishing vessel" or "failing to maintain accurate records of catch and catch-related data". They can also inspect vessels if they have clear grounds for believing that a fishing vessel "flying the flag of another State Party has engaged in any activity contrary to relevant conservation and management measures referred to in paragraph 1 in the high seas area". Paragraph 1 states that in international waters Ecuador is authorized to board and inspect fishing vessels flying the flag of another State Party for the purpose of ensuring compliance with conservation and management measures for straddling fish stocks and highly migratory fish stocks. The agreement, signed by Ecuador, is designed to avoid overfishing of trans-zone and migratory fish, so why hasn’t Ecuador inspected any vessels yet?

The Convention on the Conservation and Management of High Seas Fishery Resources in the South Pacific Ocean to which Ecuador is a signatory is linked closely with United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and dictates that;

  1. States have a duty to cooperate with each other in the conservation and management of living resources in the areas of the high seas and, as appropriate, to cooperate to establish… arrangements with a view to taking the measures necessary for the conservation of such resources”.

  2. Signatories must “take into account the respective dependence of the coastal States and the States fishing on the high seas on the fishery resources concerned

  3. Signatories must “ensure that such measures do not result in harmful impact on the living marine resources as a whole

The first point is that sufficient cooperation between Ecuador and China to conserve resources is not occurring. The second point is relevant as (as discussed later) the Galapagos Island residents depend on the fishing resources and have seen drastic declines in their catches since the Chinese fleet arrived. Need we say more on the third point? The impact on living marine resources could be described as ‘harmful’ at best.

Another idea that has been voiced is to remove ‘mother ships’ from the fleet. Mother ships collect the catches of other vessels meaning long-liners can stay at sea for almost a year without ever reaching port. Removing them would mean that the factory ships would have to dock and report catches much more frequently, allowing for catches to be more accurately reported. This may work in theory but is not currently enforceable and would need the legislative support.

A counter argument to the extension of MPAs has always been that they will never be big enough and that marine life does not understand the imaginary barriers we have put in place. As such fishing next to MPAs may mitigate all the positive outcomes of the MPA itself. Sadly, this is also true for GMR, with many arguing that it is not large enough to protect the biodiversity as intended. The 'biodiversity governance gap' describes the current lack of effective international law tackling the issue of biodiversity monitoring and conservation in international waters. It is possible that if such laws were enforced, the Chinese fleet could be removed from the area in between the Galapagos and Ecuador. This is a longer term solution that applies to global ocean conservation, but is entirely relevant to the removal of the DWF vessels. With 58% of the world’s oceans are classed as high seas, this legislative blind spot means over half of the ocean’s resources are not adequately protected. Addressing this could put a stop to events like this occurring again and again in the future.

People power and public action

The news outlet and conservation group SOSGalapagos along with Pacífico Libre, a collective made up of more than 25 organizations and professionals in the protection of animals and the environment, have created a letter in which anybody can print, sign and send to the Ecuadorian government. This letter highlights public outrage at the current events, shows disapproval of the lack of action taken from Ecuador’s government and states 22 points supported on a legal and scientific basis that could be implemented to help move things forward. If you’d like to send this the link can be found here.

The #másgalápagos movement. You may have seen on several social media accounts such as Paul Nicklen, Shaun Heinrichs and Sea Legacy, a call to action, asking people to comment ‘YES’ in the comments section of an image. This was to highlight the level of public support to President Lenin Moreno regarding the expansion of the GMR by 188 nautical miles, protecting more migratory species from the devastating effects of the mass fishing fleet. Incentives like this may seem small but they have massive power, we encourage everyone to do what they can, and if that means comment ‘YES’, then go comment!

Other actions include signing petitions such as these #sosgalapagos, Justice for Galapagos, and Save the Galapagos. Let’s make our voices heard.

More than fishing

This is about more than just fishing in one of the most biodiverse places on earth. It is about people and humanitarian issues, economic declines, global fishing trends, and politics.

The Galapagos has not had any income from tourism, on which it depends, since March due to COVID19. 37% of all jobs in the Galapagos are based on marine tourism. Without a thriving marine ecosystem, their jobs and livelihoods are at stake. Donato Rendon is a small-scale fisherman based in the Galapagos archipelago, he reports that he now has to "spend five days at sea to bring in the amount that [he] could have fished in just a day in the past". Ivonne Torres, a tour guide who lives on Santa Cruz, also reports that "the problem is even more serious with this industrial-scale fishing. It’s not just tuna and endangered sharks that will be caught but also lots of little fish that will be used as bait. These fish are an important food source for marine birds, like pelicans or blue-footed boobies, who will have fewer young if they don’t get enough food."

The list of pollutants and litter that is washing up on the once pristine shores of the Galapagos has also increased to find containers of 'toxic products', fuel tanks, oil tanks, fish waste, medical equipment, razors and toothbrushes all with Chinese characters on them. It is now an issue regarding the welfare of the Galapagos residents.

To complicate (or potentially explain) matters, China has sunk billions into Ecuador’s infrastructure. As such Ecuador can’t afford to alienate China, to which it owes of $5.3 billion. According to the Finance Ministry, Ecuador is also close to obtaining an additional $2.4 billion in new loans, totalling $7.7 billion it will be indebted to China.

Alongside this, China is the largest buyer of Ecuador’s shrimp, the country’s second largest export. Unsurprisingly, this complicates matters somewhat. Ecuador has to tread carefully as to not damage its relations with the country to which it owes its economic stability, whilst also juggling their removal from the precious waters of the Galapagos. China has described their relationship with Ecuador as "comprehensive strategic partners" also stating that "during the 40 years, Sino-Ecuadorian relations have been fruitful and have brought tangible benefits to both peoples.".

The US Senate Mike Pompeo previously commented on China’s activity in the Galapagos, stating "[China] 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 full statement can be read here.

Chinas response to Pompeo’s comments have a similar feeling of ‘school playground antics’ to them. Stating that Pompeo’s comments are "unwarranted" and "unjustifiably criticize the legal operation of Chinese fishing vessels on the high seas". China also stated that the fleet in the Galapagos "pose no threat to anyone", which is laughable and easily arguably false. They claim the US is "spreading the political virus to attack" and trying to "divert attention in search of selfish political gain". You can read China’s full statement here (you just need to put it through Google Translate).

The use of dark vessels (vessels turning their trackers off, illegal dependent on its size), illegal registering of vessels to other countries, using the same name for several vessels, and use of foreign flags have all been detected. We believe that there is a strong case to be made to put in provisions that stop the fleets actions with immediate effect. Ecuador’s government will be acutely aware of the above-mentioned treaties, conventions and articles, so the question stands, why are they still there?

Useful resources

Understanding the various laws of the sea:

Great article on profitability and subsidises of the Chinese DWF fleet:

Great overview:

Pacifico Libre Letter Explanation:

Pacifico Libre Letter:

UN’S Sustainable Development Goal (SDG):

Convention on the Conservation and Management of High Seas Fishery Resources in the South Pacific Ocean:

UN Fish Stocks Agreement:


DWF – Distant Water Fishing

EEZ – Exclusive Economic Zone

GMR – Galapagos Marine Reserve

GOA – Global Ocean Alliance

IUU – Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated

MPA – Marine Protected Area

NA – National Assembly

RFMO – Regional Fisheries Management Organisation

SDG – Sustainable Development Goals

UNCLOS – United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

UNESCO – United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation

WTO – World Trade Organisation



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