Chinese Fleet Off Galápagos: Fishermen Unite to Combat Illegal Fishing of Giant Squid

An Argentine coast guard ship at the time of wanting to board the Chinese flag ship. Photo: Argentine Naval Prefecture.

By Michelle Carrere on 4 August 2020
For Mongabay Latam

The Committee for the Sustainable Management of Giant Squid (Calamasur) and the Organization for the Protection of the Resources of the Southwest Atlantic (OPRA) signed an agreement to demand a regulation of the fishing of giant squid in the high seas.
The Chinese fleet that is currently fishing off the Galapagos mainly catches giant squid without any restrictions on quantities or sizes.

The presence of a huge Chinese fleet off the limits of the Galapagos insular territorial sea has caused outrage among Ecuadorians, scientists and conservationists around the world. There, about 260 vessels are mainly fishing for squid or giant squid (Dosidicus gigas).
“We are talking about a gigantic fleet,” says Luis Suárez, director of the NGO Conservation International in Ecuador. The overfishing of this resource, in addition to generating losses to the fishermen of the South American countries that depend on it, can generate ecological impacts since “the squid is a very important functional group in the marine ecosystem”, says Alex Hearn, Vice-president of the NGO Migramar.

In fact, “it is the main food of the hammerhead shark”, adds the marine biologist, an emblematic species of Galapagos in Critical Danger of extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

GFW Embed:

The homogeneous red spot around the Galapagos exclusive economic zone shows the movement of the Asian fleet in recent days.
Because this fleet is fishing in international waters or the high seas – a space where there are practically no laws that regulate fishing – neither the Ecuadorian State nor any other can, at the moment, do much to prevent or control this activity. In fact, “the only thing we can do is monitor and make sure the ships don’t enter [the territory],” Hearn explains.

Faced with this problem that experts associate with the absence of governance on the high seas, actors from the artisanal, industrial and processing private sector of the giant squid signed an agreement to demand that distant water fleets, especially the Asian fleet, be regulated and that catches of squid in international waters be inspected.

“It is an example that public actors should follow in seeking common and coordinated solutions,” says Peruvian fisheries engineer Renato Gozzer.

The predation of the giant squid The fisherman Pascual Aguilera, spokesman for the National Coordinator of Jibieros of Chile, says that when he goes into the sea to go to catch giant squid, or cuttlefish as they call it in his country, he finds “real floating cities.”

The exclusive economic zone, that is, the piece of ocean that is part of the territory of the countries, extends 200 miles out to sea from the shore of the beach. What follows then is the high seas or international waters where “there are many ships, they are real cities, a cordon, a wall that is placed outside 200 miles, which means that resources practically do not enter the exclusive economic zones”, Aguilera explains. For this reason, “we see that the resource is increasingly scarce, we have to go looking for it further and further,” says the fisherman.

Artisanal fishermen from Peru catching Pota. Photo: Global Fishing Watch

Aguilera is part of the Committee for the Sustainable Management of Giant Squid (Calamasur), a group made up of players from the squid industry in Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Mexico. This group was formed two and a half years ago “concerned about the threat of the distant water fleet [mainly Asian] that have illegal, transgressive behavior within our maritime domains,” says Alfonso Miranda, president of Calamasur.

Experts have already identified the behavior of the Chinese fleet that is currently off the Galapagos Islands. They assure that it is the same one that, last May, starred in spectacular persecutions by the Argentine Navy for illegally fishing inside the exclusive economic zone of that country.

Milko Schvartzman, a marine conservation specialist for the Argentine organization Círculo de Política Ambientales, who has studied this Asian fleet for years, explains that every year the vessels congregate off the coast of Argentina to fish for squid, they cross the Strait of Magellan towards the Pacific and up the coasts of Chile, Peru, until they reach Galapagos.

Video: Watch the coast guard ship at the time of wanting to board the Chinese flag ship. Photo: Argentine Naval Prefecture.

While these vessels are in front of the Peruvian sea, the fishermen of that country “practically coexist with this Chinese fleet, they work together with them, they get together”, says Pascual Aguilera and “there are hundreds of artisanal fishermen who have seen them fishing within its maritime domain, ”adds Miranda. According to the president of Calamasur, it is estimated that there are 50,000 tons of squid that foreign vessels are illegally sinning within the maritime territory of Peru. “If those 50,000 tons were to enter Peruvian plants, it means 85 million dollars a year and thousands of jobs,” he adds.

To put a stop to this problem – and considering that the South Atlantic countries also face this fleet – Calamasur and the Organization for the Protection of the Resources of the Southwest Atlantic (OPRA), its counterpart in the Atlantic, signed a cooperation agreement to “try to influence the high seas fishing of giant squid”, explains Guillermo Morán, Calamasur representative in Ecuador.

Peruvian artisanal fishermen catching Pota. Photo: Global Fishing Watch

Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) are intergovernmental fisheries organizations with the authority to establish conservation and management measures for high seas fisheries. The South Pacific RFMO —which began operating in 2013 and is made up of 15 countries in Asia, Europe, America and Oceania— has concentrated its management efforts on horse mackerel, however, it is she who must also manage the giant squid in high sea.

The Calamasur and OPRA alliance will seek to demand that the South Pacific RFMO establish control and oversight measures for the fleets that catch giant squid in international waters. In this way, they hope to be able to conserve a resource that they currently consider to be being depredated practically without control

What are the measures?

“The main proposal we have for the high seas is the closure of access for squid,” says Miranda. In other words, they will ask the RFMO not to allow the number of vessels that fish for squid in international waters to increase. “We understand that the Chinese fleet has been growing rapidly. We no longer know if there are 500 vessels or more that are fishing on the high seas ”, adds the director of Calamasur.

A second proposal is that foreign vessels have strict satellite control to ensure that they are not fishing illegally in the maritime territory of the countries. Although foreign vessels have a satellite system, “we have realized, thanks to Global Fishing Watch, that they manipulate it,” says Miranda.

For this reason, the president of Calamasur points out that at least Peru – which according to what he states “is the only country in the region that is giving port to these vessels” – should demand a satellite system compatible with the one that the Peruvian authority has so that ships can be permanently monitored. “If they want to use a Peruvian port, Peru can and has the right to demand certain conditions according to the international law of the sea,” says Miranda.

Although Calamasur’s opinion is taken into account when fulfilling an observer role in the RFMO, he does not have the possibility of making formal proposals. That is why its strategy focuses on generating information for governments to intervene and have a greater participation in decision-making. “We want our voice to be transmitted through the States as a formal request,” says Pascual Aguilera, adding that “we need a regional commitment where all coastal countries speak a single language that aims precisely to control this fleet.”

In this sense, “President Moreno’s call for the international community, especially the regional one, to speak out [on what is happening in front of the Galapagos] is one of the things that seems urgent to us,” Miranda points out.

For now, the South Pacific RFMO has unanimously approved the first one related to the giant squid. As of January 1, 2021, observers will begin to be placed on board the vessels to keep a detailed record of activities at sea. Guillermo Morán specifies that it will start with a minimum percentage of boats that will gradually increase so that, finally, all boats can have a scientific observer on board. “The objective is to ensure that the fleets that capture this resource enter into a strict, reliable and transparent order,” Morán says.

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