The industrial fishing fleet near Galapagos: what is it like and what is it looking for?

They are approximately 300 nautical miles from the Insular Exclusive Economic Zone (ZEEI).

Susana Roa Chejín · July 3, 2021

The boats are taking advantage of the wealth of fish that enter and leave the Galapagos marine reserve, according to an expert. Photo by Simón Ager.

There is a fleet of industrial fishing boats in the international waters that border the Galapagos archipelago. On June 29, when the presence of the first Chinese-flagged ship was confirmed, the Ecuadorian government said that “there has been no illegal entry” to the islands and that constant monitoring will be carried out. 

That first boat was one of the first in the fleet that arrives every year at this time to fish near the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago with one of the greatest diversities on the planet, and where industrial fishing is prohibited .

Are they all Chinese ships?

No. The fleet has Chinese, Japanese and South Korean flag ships. However, its largest percentage is made of vessels from China, which is the country that fishes the most in international waters, according to information from the Stimson international research center collected by the Wall Street Journal.

How is the great fleet made up and how does it act? 

The large fleet has industrial fishing boats. Ricardo Crespo, part of the legal team of the Ecuadorian Coordinator of Organizations for the Defense of Nature and the Environment (Cedenma), says that environmentalists suspect that the fleet is fishing with industrial longlines. In addition to longline boats, Crespo says there are jigger boats, which fish for giant squid and other species.

Longline is a fishing system that is prohibited in the Galapagos, but in other countries it has not completely disappeared. It is made of a floating main line – which can measure from two to tens of kilometers – from which other secondary and vertical lines extend, with dozens of circle hooks are placed at their ends. Fishermen prefer the technique because it is more profitable than other fishing systems and it requires less effort, but it carries away everything within its reach — even protected species. 

Due to its size and its inability to distinguish between species, the technique’s level of bycatch is high. In areas of high species diversity, such as the Galapagos, it could put marine animals already in danger of becoming extinct at risk. In 1997, the first time it was used on the islands, more than half of the catch was of different species of sharks, most included in the list of threatened species maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Chinese fishing fleet is the largest in the world. An analysis of transponder and global vessel registration data – done by London’s Overseas Development Institute – says there are 17,000 Chinese vessels fishing outside their country’s territorial waters. Its closest competitors are Taiwan and South Korea, which have some 2,500 vessels between them.

Additionally, Chinese ships are big. A study by the Yale School of the Environment says that in one week these vessels catch the same amount of fish that local boats in Africa or Latin America can catch in a year.

Where are the boats now?

According to the General Secretariat of Communication of the Presidency (Segcom), the first ship, under the Chinese flag, is approximately 300 nautical miles from the Insular Exclusive Economic Zone (ZEEI), the area of ​​ocean over which a country has jurisdiction. Global Fishing Watch, a satellite monitoring tool for fishing activity around the world, identified that most of the boats that fish in the area are located in the southwestern part of the archipelago, in international waters. 

The ZEEI extends from the outer limit of the territorial sea – 12 miles from the base line of the islands – to 200 nautical miles. In the ZEEI, the Ecuadorian State has sovereign rights for the purpose of exploration, exploitation and conservation of natural results in the waters, soil and subsoil of the sea. In other words, the country can decide whether or not to allow the free transit of vessels in this area. 

In addition, the boats are close to the Galapagos Marine Reserve (RMG). According to Segcomthe first ship is 470 nautical miles from the reserve (a strip of 40 nautical miles) in which all species are protected and industrial fishing is prohibited.

Why are there international ships near Galapagos?

Lawyer Ricardo Crespo says that in several countries there is a shortage of fish near their coasts. That is why, says Crespo, there are many international fleets that “pursue more fishing” in areas with greater wealth of marine diversity such as Galapagos. According to Crespo, “they are taking advantage of the wealth of fish that enter and leave the marine reserve.”

They fish in this area between June and October because their catch depends on the marine currents and at this time the diversity is strengthened by the crossing of marine currents – from Cromwell, Humboldt, Panama and North and South Equatorial – in the islands. That allows them to have more fish, especially giant squid, according to Crespo. This animal is the most abundant marine invertebrate in the southeast Pacific. The species migrates annually from Mexican waters to the Chilean coast. According to Global Fishing Watch, this species is threatened in the Galapagos by the fleet of ships with Chinese, Japanese and South Korean flags.

Crespo says that international fleets fish in international waters with “very little control.” According to him, it is very evident that this fishing is not sustainable, it is indiscriminate and does not comply with the international legal framework. 

What is sustainable fishing?

Sustainable fishing “aims for responsible and sustainable use and sustainable use of aquatic resources”, according to the Organic Law for the Development of Aquaculture and Fisheries. That includes prioritizing the implementation of measures to conserve and restore populations of captured species.  

According to lawyer Crespo, this is not the case with the international fleet that fishes near the islands every year. “We suspect that the several times the ships have turned off the detection systems.” In other words, they cannot be traced in the event that they enter into the Exclusive Economic Zone. On June 29, Gustavo Manrique, Minister of Tourism, said that if the ships breach the limits of the ZEEI or the Galapagos Maritime Reserve, the State will take “the pertinent actions.”

What measures is the government taking?

On June 29, 2021, the Ecuadorian government said that it monitors vessels that are near the islands “continuously.” In addition, a statement from Segcom says that they are carrying out air, nautical and technological controls to guarantee that they do not enter Ecuadorian waters. 

Segcom said that since May 24, 2021, when President Guillermo Lasso took office, an inter-ministerial committee was activated to “periodically evaluate” cases such as the foreign fleet near Galapagos. It is made up of the Ministries of: 

  • International relations.
  • Defending
  • Production, Foreign Trade, Investments and Fishing
  • Environment, Water and Ecological Transition
  • And the General Secretariat of Communication of the Presidency

In addition, Manrique said that “today’s technology allows us to track where they are, the speeds at which they navigate and other characteristics with an exact level of precision, which allows us to make timely decisions.” In addition, the government plans to invest in other technological tools. The government said that Ecuador “established an agreement with Canada that allows it to have a technological tool to track ships, even when they turn off their navigation equipment.” 

Yakov César Cedeño, an expert in military operations, says that this “contributes, but it is not really significant” because even if they know exactly where the vessel is, the country does not have the capacity to intercept it and obtain evidence in case the limits are violated. the ZEEI. Some of the reasons why Ecuador’s possibilities are limited are the lack of financial resources, personnel, boats, among others.

What other strategies will there be?

On Monday, July 5, Cedenma will file an administrative claim with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility an administrative claim. Crespo says that he will be presented to this institution because it is the governing body of foreign policy. The document will ask the Ministry to present a “proactive and immediate” strategy to control the situation, according to what international treaties mandate.

Crespo says they hope their claim will have an immediate and positive response. If that is not the case, they will go to the Constitutional Court to file an action for non-compliance with the provisions of the law. 

Crespo says that he expects the Ministry to present a strategic emergency plan for accumulated environmental damage that is affecting the territorial marine areas. 

Cedenma’s lawyer says that the Ministry should propose an immediate strategy of action that includes: 

  • Inspections of vessels suspected of undeclared fishing.
  • More diplomatic actions with China so that Convemar forces its ships to “not waste marine resources.”
  • Diplomatic actions with other countries. 

And other important measures that are framed in international law. Thus, says Crespo, they hope that this type of situation will not happen again in Ecuador.  

According to Crespo, in the last 4 years in which there has been a frequent presence of boats near the islands, it has not been observed that the authorities make decisions that work. Ricardo Crespo says that the country “maintains the argument that as long as they are not entering our area, there is no problem.” That is why they recommend using international law to take care of the country’s seas and avoid disasters in an area as delicate as Galapagos.

What does international law say?

There are international norms and treaties that regulate fishing worldwide, including in international waters such as the Code of Conduct of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the organization that coordinates international fishing policy. In addition, there are the fisheries management commissions such as the Southeast Pacific Commission and other international treaties. 

Lawyer Crespo says that even some international treaties oblige countries and vessels that circulate in international waters to fish sustainably in the areas near marine reserves and exclusive economic zones. 

Crespo says that one of the main international regulations that should be applied in this case is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Convemar), a policy that protects sustainable and rational fishing activity. Crespo says that even though they are in international waters, Convemar also has demands on the high seas. The agreement says that the populations of the species caught must be maintained or restored at levels that guarantee sustainability. 

There are also laws in Ecuador that could help solve the problem. Article 9 of the law for the development of aquaculture and fishing says “the norms adopted by the State, to ensure the sustainable use of hydrobiological resources in jurisdictional waters, will also be applied in the area adjacent to the exclusive economic zone.” In other words, the vessels that fish near the EEZ must also comply with regulations to guarantee the sustainability of the species, even if they are not fishing within the exclusive economic zone.

Thus, the law says, it will be possible to “protect straddling and highly migratory fish species and other living marine resources associated or dependent on them.” In addition, the safety of the species that are associated with the trophic chain – the chain in which each species feeds on the preceding one and is food for the next – of protected species of the exclusive economic zone will be guaranteed. 

Crespo says they are coordinating activities with lawyers from Argentina. In the southern country, a non-governmental organization filed an appeal before the Supreme Court of Argentina. It did so for the Court to order the State to adopt measures to curb illegal fishing in Argentina’s exclusive economic zone in the Atlantic. 

Previous cases

On August 14, 2017, the Ecuadorian navy captured a Chinese vessel with around 300 tons of fish. The Multicompetent Judicial Unit of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, in Galapagos, handed down a four-year prison sentence to the captain of the ship. In addition, three years for his close associates and one year for the other members of the crew. The court also imposed a fine of 5.9 million dollars for the material repair of the Galapagos National Park. 

In 2020, industrial fishing near the islands continued. In July of last year, the Ecuadorian Navy warned about the presence of 260 Chinese ships near the Ecuadorian territorial sea that surrounds the Galapagos Marine Reserve. After the announcement, then-president of the Galápagos Governing Council, Norman Wray announced on his Twitter account that Esperanza, a whale shark wearing a tracking device, stopped broadcasting after having been tracked for 280 days. Esperanza was between the Insular Economic Exclusive Zone and the Galapagos Marine Reserve, close to where the Chinese boats fished. 

Read the original coverage from GK at

Informing and sharing news on marine life, flora, fauna and conservation in the Galápagos Islands since 2017
© SOS Galápagos, 2021


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