A new report suggests the Chinese fishing fleet that mass trawled just off Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands in recent months was fishing illegally in the country’s territorial waters, sparking a renewed search for regional solutions to reel in such illegal fishing practices.
Below, InSight Crime details key elements to take away from this complex case.
1. What Did the Fleet Do?
On July 16, the Ecuadorian Navy issued a warning that a foreign fishing fleet of about 260 vessels was stationed just outside Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Galápagos Islands and that naval personnel were prepared to intercept any vessels entering illegally.
By the end of July, the fleet had swelled to over 342 vessels, the vast majority Chinese-flagged or Chinese-owned. Heavily dominated by trawlers, which are banned in Chinese waters, the fleet skirted the edge of the EEZ, using overhead lights and industrial jigging machines to legally catch vast quantities of fish during a month-long 73,000-hour collective fishing streak near one of the world’s most biodiverse maritime areas.
On July 25, Ecuadorian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was ordered by President Lenín Moreno to inform China that it would assert its maritime rights. Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrín revealed in August that about half the Chinese fleet had switched off their tracking and identification systems — a tactic known as “going dark at sea” often used during illegal fishing.
A new investigation by analytics company HawkEye 360 found two major issues with the fleet.
And during that same period, unidentified dark vessels were present inside the Ecuadorian EEZ on multiple occasions, including some directly adjacent to the Chinese fleet.
2. Growing Problem
Illegal fishing constitutes the sixth most lucrative global criminal economy, with estimated revenues of $15 to 36 billion, according to a 2017 report by Global Financial Integrity. China’s fishing fleet of nearly 17,000 vessels, by far the world’s biggest, is a major contributor to this problem, with China ranked the world’s worst-performing nation on illegal fishing in a 2019 Global Initiative report.
The Chinese fishing fleet, while long having been a problem, became a particular concern after 2016. Since then, it has prompted serious annual alerts in Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. In Chile alone, illegal fishing annually costs the country an estimated $300 million, according to a new report by AthenaLab. In Ecuador, environmental concerns have loomed large after an infamous encounter in 2017 with Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, a ship intercepted inside the UNESCO-protected Galápagos Marine Reserve with 300 tons of shark onboard, including endangered hammerheads.
This year, according to both reports and a publicly available map by Global Fishing Watch, part of the Chinese fleet remained east of the Galápagos from January through April while the other part moved to Argentine waters. By May, the two sections had reunited off southern Peru, before moving between the Galápagos EEZ and the waters off mainland Ecuador’s EEZ from May to September, causing the aforementioned international outcry. Since then the fleet has moved south, and is currently largely based around Peru’s southern waters, where its vessels currently fish.
If previous years are any indication, most of the vessels will move towards Argentina in the coming months before making the same trip in reverse next year. The practice of “transshipping” — transferring fuel, provisions, crew or fish from one vessel to another — allows the fleet to remain at sea for indefinite periods. It also facilitates the laundering of illegally caught fish.
3. Overfishing and Endangered Species
As the world’s largest seafood exporter, responsible for about 15 percent of the world’s reported fishing catch in 2018 (more than twice the second- and third-ranking countries), Chinese fishing vessels operate all over the world. In the Latin American Pacific, however, they mostly fish squid, of which the Chinese fleet accounts for a disproportionate 50 to 70 percent of all squid caught in international waters.
Yet the sheer number of vessels means there are concerns that not only is the fleet overexploiting squid but also inadvertently catching other species as well, including endangered ones such as rays and hammerhead sharks.
The fleet’s massive hauls have also forced local fishermen to find new spots to fish, exacerbating both the overexploitation of fisheries and the potential catching of endangered species. Elsewhere, such as in Colombia’s Malpelo Reserve, growing Chinese demand has fuelled an illegal fishing boom, with several endangered species being highly requested.
4. Regional Response
Given the inherently transnational nature of the fleet’s fishing, skirting the maritime borders of several nations, only a coordinated regional response is likely to be effective.
Yet such coordination has often been lacking. In July, Costa Rica’s signature raised to four the number of Latin American nations with an agreement to make their vessel tracking data publicly available through Global Fishing Watch (GFW), a move aimed at reducing illegal fishing. Ecuador was not among them. Instead, the country announced a private collaboration with Kleos Space, a space data service provider, that will expand its activities to monitor suspected IUU fishing in Ecuador. This may constitute part of the “protection strategy” for the Galápagos Islands announced in July via Twitter by Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno.
As for Peru and Chile, both countries have made their data publicly available with GFW, as well as deploying aerial and naval monitoring to follow the fleet’s progress. Peru is also prosecuting a Chinese captain for illegally fishing in Peruvian waters in 2018, the first prosecution of a foreign vessel in Peruvian history. While a step in the right direction, neither of these measures is likely to stem the tide of illegal fishing. Ecuador has prosecuted Chinese captains before, and it too was monitoring Chinese vessels even as they allegedly entered its EEZ.
More promising is the joint statement issued by the Chilean Foreign Ministry in conjunction with that of Ecuador, Peru and Colombia regarding the “large fleet of foreign-flagged vessels” that fished off their EEZs. The statement condemns illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices, and it commits to collaborating on deepening information exchange and to strengthening regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs). More importantly, it also highlights the decision by the Permanent Commission to the South Pacific (CPPS), a maritime regulatory body made up of these four countries, to condemn any act that resembles IUU fishing, even if it occurs adjacent to a country’s EEZ.
In other words, the next time a foreign fleet mass trawls off the waters of one of these countries, all four agree to clearly label this as IUU fishing. Finally, the statement comes one day after the start of the 61st edition of the Unitas maneuvers, a series of annual naval exercises partly aimed at tackling illegal fishing that are being held in Ecuador for the first time in 11 years. Involving the US and several Latin American nations, this year’s edition also includes Peru, Chile and Colombia.
5. US Response
The US has appeared more bullish when wading into the dispute. US President Donald Trump denounced Chinese fishing operations during his UN address on September 22. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a press release on August 2 titled “On China’s Predatory Fishing Practices in the Galápagos.” And the US embassies to Ecuador and Peru both condemned the fleet on Twitter.
Meanwhile, in late August, US Coast Guard dispatched USCGC Bertholf to support the Ecuadorian Navy’s patrols around the EEZ, weeks before unveiling its new, China-focused strategy to combat IUU fishing, which seeks to promote targeted intelligence-driven enforcement operations, counter state-sponsored “predatory fishing” and increase multilateral cooperation.
In a similar vein, US Admiral Karl Schultz, commandant of the US Coast Guard, said in a recent talk that IUU fishing has overtaken counter-narcotics and anti-piracy as the most important priority for global maritime security. He emphasized the major role China must play in combating this global problem, claiming that illegal fishing accounts for 20 percent of fish caught worldwide.
6. Chinese Response
As for China itself, despite denying allegations its fleet engaged in IUU fishing through its Colombian, Peruvian and Ecuadorian embassies, the government has responded by significantly tightening the regulations governing its fishing fleet for the first time in 17 years to “include harsher punishment for those caught breaking the rules, a clamp-down on vessel monitoring, new port management procedures, stricter certification requirements, and clarification of penalties,” according to Conservation News Website Mongabay.
Notably, according to an official at the Chinese Embassy in Ecuador interviewed by El Universo, the Chinese government plans to eliminate the roughly $400 million annual fuel subsidy that has long powered the fleet, effectively slashing the fleet’s ability to operate year-round so far from China. Furthermore, China has proposed finally ratifying the 2016 Port State Measures Agreement, the first internationally binding accord to “prevent, deter and eliminate IUU fishing by preventing vessels engaged in IUU fishing from using ports and landing their catches,” though no date has been set.
While this could be a big step to reducing IUU fishing, it is worth noting China has signed a number of such treaties before, without ever ratifying or enforcing them, most notably a key 1996 UN treaty. It is also already a member of 7 RFMOs, many of whose provisions its fleet routinely ignores.