Chinese fleet off Galapagos reveals legal loopholes in offshore fishing

Photo: Simon Ager / Sea Shepherd.

by Michelle Carrere on July 27, 2020

Scientists and conservationists fear that Chinese vessels are catching endangered species like sharks and rays.

On the high seas there are practically no laws that regulate fishing activity. The global treaty that was to be signed this year and that was created with the purpose of filling that void, left out issues related to catch regulations.

Some 260 Chinese vessels have been fishing for more than a week in the limits of the exclusive economic zone of Galapagos, alarming authorities, scientists and conservationists.

Although this huge fleet is in international waters and has not entered the Ecuadorian maritime territory, experts warn that there are well-founded reasons to believe that these ships are capturing species that are in danger of extinction.

One of the most emblematic cases of illegal fishing in the world still remains in the memory of Ecuadorians. The case of the ship Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 that was intercepted by the Ecuadorian navy in 2017 within the Galapagos Marine Reserve and that hid 300 tons of sharks inside.

The tension that has caused the arrival of the Chinese fleet to the limits of one of the most important marine protection zones in the region and in the world, reveals once again the absence of governance on the high seas and the urgency of creating laws that allow regulation of fishing in international waters.

Threatened species can be caught “There is a lot of concern about the volume of fishing. We are talking about a gigantic fleet ”, says Luis Suárez, director of the NGO Conservation International in Ecuador. The main objective of the 260 supply and storage vessels – including fishing vessels – is to catch giant squid (Dosidicus gigas), says Alex Muñoz, director for Latin America of the National Geographic Pristine Seas program.

“The squid is a very important functional group in the marine ecosystem,” says Alex Hearn, Vice President of the NGO Migramar, “there may be ecological impacts by reducing these resources,” says the marine biologist. In fact, he adds that this species “is the main food of the hammerhead shark.”

But the presence of the Chinese fleet represents an even more direct risk. It is inevitable that other species fall incidentally on the hooks that try to catch squid, without forgetting that the boats are positioned in the migratory route of a series of species that are in danger of extinction, such as sharks and rays. Suárez fears that the vessels are capturing other animals and the concern is heightened if the background of this fleet and the “special interest that Chinese culture has for sharks is considered,” he says.

More than 30 species of sharks live in the Galapagos, some of which are threatened with extinction such as the Endangered whale shark (Rhincodon typus) or the Critically Endangered hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini), according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Many of them constantly move between the Galapagos and the mainland, Suárez says. In fact, the Charles Darwin Foundation is currently working on research that seeks to establish whether the archipelago’s hammerheads give birth to their young off the coasts of South America and Central America.

School of young hammerhead sharks in Galapagos. Photo: CDF / Pelayo Salinas de León

As long as the animals swim inside the reserve they are safe. However, as fish do not know borders, when leaving the protected area they are forced to face the danger of being caught by the Ecuadorian fleet, especially the tuna, which fishes within the exclusive economic zone although complying, supposedly, some restrictions imposed by Ecuadorian legislation.

Then, when leaving the maritime territory of this country, the animals must overcome a much greater challenge: avoid being captured by the boats that fish in international waters, a territory “without law, where a boat from any country comes and does what it wants. ”Says Milko Schvartzman, a marine conservation specialist for the Argentine organization Círculo de Política Ambientales, who has studied this Chinese fleet for years, which is the same one that operates off the coast of Argentina and that last May starred in spectacular persecution by of that country’s navy.

A fleet of about 260 Chinese vessels fish south of the Galapagos Exclusive Economic Zone. Photo: Global Fishing Watch

Scientists already reported, a few days ago, a possible victim of this high seas fishing. It is about Esperanza or Hope, a whale shark that for nine months has been sending information about its positioning through a satellite device installed on its body. “We were very happy because it is not normal to be able to have such a long track,” says Alex Hearn. However, the shark stopped transmitting in mid-May.

“These things happen,” says the biologist. However, when the scientific team learned of the presence of international fleets, it decided to superimpose Esperanza’s movements on the position of the ships and discovered that “the latest detections of this shark coincide spatially and temporally with the presence of industrial vessels,” says Hearn. The expert warns that it is not the Chinese fleet, but another located further west.

The whale shark’s movements are slow and it appears that it is not bothered by the presence of strangers in the water. They reach an average speed of 5 kilometers per hour. Credits: Jonathan Green / Galapagos Whale Shark

“Whether it was caught or not is a question we cannot answer,” says Hearn, as brands can stop transmitting for different reasons, such as losing energy or detaching from the animal. However, the possibility that Esperanza is in the hold of a ship is not a possibility that can be ruled out either.

The law of the jungle on the high seas 

The high seas, also called international waters, cover 41% of the planet and 60% of all the Earth’s oceans. However, there is almost no law that sets rules about how much, how, what and when to fish.

The experts consulted by Mongabay Latam agree that the presence of the Chinese fleet off the Galapagos reveals the problems derived from the lack of governance in these spaces. “As long as that governance does not exist, there is very little that can be done about what happens on the high seas,” says Muñoz. In fact, the Chinese fleet has not entered Ecuadorian waters, “we have no right to board it. The only thing we can do is monitor and make sure they don’t come in, ”Hearn explains

For this reason, the biologist highlights the importance of approving the Global Ocean Treaty, an international agreement that for the first time creates a legal framework for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in the high seas.

The coast guard ship of the Argentine navy at the time of wanting to board the Chinese-flagged ship last May. Photo: Argentine Naval Prefecture.

However, said treaty – which was due to be signed this year but was postponed due to the pandemic – has disappointed scientists. During the long journey, which began in 2008, “the possibility that the agreement included fishing regulations began to fall,” says Schvartzman, who has participated in the discussions from the beginning.

The result was a document that “does not include any aspect to prevent fish predation on the high seas,” adds the expert and maintains that, for this reason, “the status quo will follow practically as it is.” Alex Muñoz agrees with this analysis and, in fact, assures that “even when that treaty is signed, the text is so weak that the difference would be very little.”

Schvartzman points out that, in any case, the treaty has other important aspects that represent an advance in terms of governance on the high seas. First, it opens up the possibility of creating marine protected areas in international waters, which could help restrict fishing in some regions. In addition, it establishes that offshore exploitation activities will require environmental impact studies in order to develop.

However, he insists that the problem of fishing still remains unresolved. “A robust treaty is yet to be finalized to strengthen the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources in the high seas,” Muñoz points out, adding that fleets, such as the Chinese, “are heavily subsidized, which increases the overexploitation of fish species.” For this reason, the director of Pristine Seas emphasizes that “it is very important to reach an agreement to end fishing subsidies.”

On the high seas there is practically no law regulating fishing activities. Photo: Simon Ager / Sea Shepherd.

The overfishing that the Chinese fleet could currently be carrying out off the Galapagos, and which is allowed due to the lack of governance on the high seas, “is detrimental not only for Ecuador”, says Muñoz, “but for all the countries that depend on the sea and that we need healthy fisheries to feed the planet, and to give income to thousands of fishermen who live from this activity ”.

In this sense, the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that “it is using all the resources provided by international law” and that the Foreign Minister, Luis Gallegos, ordered “to undertake consultations with the countries bordering the Pacific, especially Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Peru to advance in joint solutions and intensify diplomatic actions aimed at combating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing ”.

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