Rich and ecologically diverse, the waters around the Galápagos Islands have attracted local fishermen for centuries. Now those waters face a much bigger and more rapacious hunter: China.
The Galápagos are part of Ecuador. And yet, every year, an increasing number of Chinese trading vessels, thousands of miles from home, fish here, sometimes on the edge of Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone.
Since 2016, Chinese vessels have operated off South America virtually all day, all year round, moving seasonally from the coasts of Ecuador to Peru and eventually to Argentina, where they have collectively fished over 16,000 days already this year.
The scale has sounded the alarm about damage to local economies and the environment, as well as the commercial sustainability of tuna, squid and other species.
Over the past two decades, China has built by far the largest deep-sea fishing fleet in the world, with nearly 3,000 vessels. Having severely depleted stocks in its own coastal waters, China now fishes in any ocean in the world, and on a scale that dwarfs the entire fleets of some countries.
The impact is increasingly being felt from the Indian Ocean to the South Pacific, from the coasts of Africa to those off South America – a high-seas manifestation of China’s global economic might.
The Chinese effort drew diplomatic and legal protests. The fleet has also been linked to illegal activities, including encroaching on other countries’ territorial waters, condoning labor abuses and catching endangered species. In 2017, Ecuador seized a refrigerated cargo ship, the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, carrying an illicit cargo of 6,620 sharks, the fins of which are a delicacy in China.
Much of what China does, however, is legal – or, on the high seas, at least, largely unregulated. Given the growing demands of an increasingly prosperous consumer class in China, this is unlikely to end soon. This does not mean that it is durable.
As of summer 2020, conservation group Oceana had nearly 300 Chinese vessels operating near the Galápagos, just outside Ecuador’s Exclusive Economic Zone, the 200 nautical miles off its territory where it maintains rights to natural resources under the Law of the Sea Treaty. Ships hugged the area so tightly that satellite mapping of their positions traced the boundaries of the area.
Together they accounted for almost 99% of the fishing near the Galápagos. No other country has come close.
“Our sea can no longer bear this pressure,” said Alberto Andrade, a fisherman from Galápagos. The presence of so many Chinese vessels, he added, has made it more difficult for local fishermen in the territorial waters of Ecuador, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that inspired the theory of the evolution of Charles Darwin.
Andrade organized a group of fishermen, the Island Front for the Galápagos Marine Reserve, to call for the expansion of fishing protections around the islands.
“The industrial fleets are razing the stocks, and we are afraid that in the future there will be no more fishing,” he said. “Even the pandemic hasn’t stopped them.”
An industrial effort
China can fish on such an industrial scale thanks to vessels like the Hai Feng 718, a refrigerated cargo ship built in Japan in 1996. It is registered in Panama and managed by a company in Beijing called Zhongyu Global Seafood Corp.
Its owner is a public company: the China National Fisheries Corp.
Hai Feng 718 is known as a carrier ship or a mother ship. It has refrigerated storage holds to store tons of catch. It also carries fuel and other supplies for small ships that can unload their cargoes and resupply their crews at sea. As a result, other ships do not need to spend time returning to port, allowing them to fish almost continuously.
In a year beginning in June 2021, the Hai Feng 718 encountered at least 70 small Chinese-flagged fishing vessels at various locations at sea, according to Global Fishing Watch, a research organization that collates transponder location data. of ships. Each encounter, known as a transhipment, represents the transfer of tons of fish that the smaller vessels would have had to offload at a port hundreds of miles away.
Together the ships followed the coasts of South America in what became a year-round prize hunt.
After departing Weihai, a port city in China’s Shandong Province, the Hai Feng 718 arrived in Galapagos in August 2021 and spent nearly a month in waters off Ecuador’s Exclusive Economic Zone. There he serviced many ships like the Hebei 8588.
These vessels are designed to catch squid, one of the prizes of the fleet. The lights ships use at night to lure squid to the surface are so bright they can be tracked from space.
A month later, the Chinese fleet went to the coast of Peru, where the Hai Feng 718 came close to more than two dozen smaller ships, some of them several times, including, again , Hebei 8588.
Loaded with prizes, the mothership returned to China. Last December he was at sea again, this time heading west across the Indian Ocean. It arrived off the coast of Argentina for the start of the squid season in January. In May it was again off the Galapagos.
These operations allowed a boom in squid harvesting. Between 1990 and 2019, the number of deep-sea squid rose from six to 528, while reported annual catches rose from around 5,000 tonnes to 278,000, according to a report published this year by Global Fishing Watch. In 2019, China accounted for almost all of the squid operating in the South Pacific.
The arrangement of transferring catches to another vessel is not illegal, but experts say using mother ships makes it easy to under-report catches and obscure their origins. Other countries are also deploying deep-sea fleets, including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, but none do so on the scale of China.
The Hai Feng 718 alone has over 500,000 cubic feet of cargo space, enough to haul thousands of tons of fish.
Global Fishing Watch has tracked dozens of unexplained “loaming events,” where larger vessels linger in an area with no recorded meetings between carriers and smaller vessels. Experts warn that smaller vessels may turn off their transponders to avoid detection in order to disguise illegal or unregulated catches.
The impact on certain species such as squid off South America is difficult to measure with precision. In some regions, such as the South Pacific, international agreements require countries to report their catch, although under-reporting is considered common. In the South Atlantic, such an agreement does not exist.
There are already worrying signs of declining stocks, which could presage a wider ecological collapse.
“The concern is the number of vessels and the lack of accountability, to know how much is being fished and where it is going,” said Marla Valentine, oceanographer at Oceana, the conservation group. “And I fear that the impacts that are happening now will reverberate in the future.
“Because it’s not just squid that’s going to be affected,” she added. “It will also be anything that feeds on the squid.”
The global backlash
The appearance of the Chinese fleet at the edge of the Galápagos in 2020 drew international attention to the industrial scale of the Chinese fishing fleet. Ecuador lodged a protest in Beijing. Its then president, Lenín Moreno, pledged on Twitter to defend the marine sanctuary, which he called “a nursery of life for the whole planet”.
China responded with offers of concessions. He announced moratoriums on fishing in certain areas, although critics noted that the restrictions apply to seasons when fish are not as plentiful. It has pledged to cap the size of its deep-sea fleet, but not reduce it, and to reduce the government subsidies it gives to fishing companies, many of which are still state-owned or controlled.
In the year following the fury over the Galápagos, the bulk of the Chinese fleet moved further away from Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone. Otherwise, he continued to fish as much as before.
In Argentina, a group of environmentalists, backed by the Gallifrey Foundation, an ocean conservation organization, filed an injunction with the country’s highest court last year in hopes of urging the government to do more to comply with its constitutional obligations to protect the environment. They plan to file a similar injunction in the coming months in Ecuador.
“We have a permanent Chinese fleet 200 miles off our coast,” said Pablo Ferrara, a lawyer and professor at the University of Salvador in Buenos Aires, referring to the distance covered by Argentina’s exclusive economic zone. .
Argentina’s navy, which sank a Chinese fishing boat inside the area in 2016, has since announced it will add four new patrol vessels to step up its enforcement efforts in its coastal waters.
The United States has also pledged to help smaller countries counter China’s illegal or unregulated fishing practices. The US Coast Guard, which now sees the practice as one of the biggest threats to ocean security, has dispatched patrol vessels to the South Pacific.
In July, President Joe Biden issued a national security memorandum pledging to strengthen oversight of the industry. Speaking virtually at a forum of Pacific nations that month, Vice President Kamala Harris said the United States would triple its aid to help nations patrol their waters, offering $60 million a year for the next decade.
Such efforts may help in territorial waters, but they do little to restrain China’s fleet on the high seas. Global fish consumption continues to rise, reaching an all-time high in 2019. At the same time , known stocks of most fish species continue to decline, according to the latest report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“The challenge is to persuade China that it too needs to ensure the long-term sustainability of ocean resources,” said Duncan Currie, an international environmental lawyer who advises the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition. “He won’t be here forever.”
[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]