Observers

Since mid-July, a fleet of more than 280 fishing vessels has been working near the border of the Galapagos marine reserve, which is home to dozens of protected species, including several types of sharks. Environmental activists say they are afraid that this massive fleet could turn the fragile ecosystem upside down. Local fishermen have already noticed a reduction in their catches. 

In mid-July, residents of the Galapagos Islands, which are located in the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 kilometres off of Ecuador, discovered that a commercial fleet made up of hundreds of boats, including fishing vessels, freighters and factory vessels, were fishing on an industrial scale not far from the Galapagos marine reserve, which is a UNESCO world heritage site.

The vessels appeared on sites like Marine Traffic and Global Fishing Watch, which track the location of ships around the world. Any ship with its automatic identification system (AIS) activated appears on the maps on these sites. AIS also provides info on the ship itself and its operations.

"We’ve detected between 280 and 300 vessels in this giant fleet that is operating near the Galapagos Islands, though they never stray into the reserve. Several of the vessels in the group have been used in illegal fishing operations in the past,” says Tony Long, CEO of Global Fishing Watch. 

This screengrab, taken on the Marine Traffic site on Aug. 5, 2020, shows the fleet in international waters, very near to the Galapagos marine reserve. On the map, orange is used to indicate what the vessels are doing. The vessel in this image was being used for fishing. 
This screengrab, taken by Global Fishing Watch, uses an algorithm to show where fishing likely took place between July 10 and Aug. 5, 2020, along the border of the Galapagos marine reserve (above) and in Ecuador’s territorial waters (right). Only vessels that fly the Chinese flag are shown on this map (in orange).

These tools also provide information about the vessels, including their port of origin, and often include photos, usually contributed by amateurs. Some of the photos indicate vessels equipped to fish for squid on an industrial scale. 


This vessel, called "Zhou Hong Yuan 1", is equipped for industrial squid fishing. The side of the vessel is fixed with winches and there are multiple lamps on the deck, which are used to attract squid at night

This shows the path that the "Zhou Hong Yuan 1" travelled around the Galapagos reserve between July 2 and 25, 2020. 

The marine conservation organisation Sea Shepherd says that while the presence of this fleet in international waters between the Galapagos and Ecuador isn’t “technically illegal” it “violates the spirit of the law protecting the marine reserve because numerous species, including sharks, are migratory and regularly leave this sanctuary to reach the high seas”. 

Ecuadorian fisherman, furious at the arrival of this fleet, filmed the boats out on the open seas. Their footage shows some fishing squid, while others practice longlining, which involves using lines that can reach up to 100 kilometres in length and are equipped with tens of thousands of baited hooks to catch large fish like sharks and tuna.  

The fishermen who spoke to The Observers team asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.

A fisherman posted this video, which was verified by our team, as a story on his Instagram account on July 29. Each of the many lights in the footage represents a squid-fishing boat.
 
A large cargo ship illegally deactivates its automatic identification system
 
The presence of the Chinese fleet isn’t illegal, as it is operating in international waters. However, local activities say that they have seen them break other international laws. 

A group of fishermen filmed the fleet from aboard a helicopter. The video below shows two squid-fishing boats next to a large vessel, the Yong Xiang 9, which flies the Panamanian flag but has a Chinese name. 
This video was filmed from a helicopter by an employee of a fishing company on July 21, 2020.

Activist Nicolas Schieff is a member of a group called Frente Insular de la Reserva Marina de Galápagos (Insular Front for the Galapagos Marine Reserve). Schieff has been working with locals to find out more. He is particularly interested in the Yong Xiang 9.  
 
These images show the large vessel picking up hauls from the smaller vessels so they don’t have to travel back to the port. When this video was filmed on July 21, the Yong Xiang 9 had its automatic identification system turned off, which is illegal [Editor’s note: Vessels that have a gross tonnage higher than 500 must keep their AIS turned on at all times. The tonnage of the Yong Xiang 9 is 9,298].

This isn’t the first time that this particular boat has gotten close to the Galapagos marine reserve. Back in 2018, the
Ecuadorian army filmed it during a surveillance operation

 
Hundreds of Chinese-made plastic bottles pile up on the beaches of the Galapagos

The fleet, which is located more than 360 kilometres from the archipelago, isn’t visible from the coast. But residents knew it was there when they started discovering plastic bottles marked with Chinese characters on their beaches. 

Juliette Miranda, a receptionist at a hotel on the Galapagos' Isabela island, found these bottles. She believes that fishermen in the Chinese fleet tossed them into the ocean: "I’ve been living here for a year and I’ve never seen so much rubbish and never in such a good condition. That’s why I think that they are coming from the Chinese fleet."

 
"This industrial-scale fishing has serious consequences on the entire ecosystem”

Ivonne Torres is a 55-year-old tour guide and a naturalist who lives on Santa Cruz, one of the Galapagos' 18 principal islands.
 
I was already really angry about having to manage the rubbish from all over the world that washes up on our beaches all year, but with this Chinese fleet, it is even worse than usual. Guides like me often help out the national park by cleaning up the beaches and the week of July 27 a group of us volunteered. We picked up bags and bags of Chinese-made plastic bottles. 

This photo shows one of the many bags that volunteers filled during a beach cleaning campaign organized on the archipelago between July 27 and August 2. (Photo by Ivonne Torres.)
 
The problem is even more serious with this industrial-scale fishing. It’s not just tuna and endangered sharks that will be caught but also lots of little fish that will be used as bait. These fish are an important food source for marine birds, like pelicans or blue-footed boobies, who will have fewer young if they don’t get enough food. 

We are already suffering negative effects of the climate crisis and we’ve been seeing these giant fleets of fishing boats getting closer and closer to our shores for the past few years. That has serious consequences for the entire ecosystem, including, for example, a significant decrease in new offspring and nesting on the archipelago.

"I spend five days at sea to bring in the amount that I could have fished in just a day in the past”

Sixty-four-year-old Donato Rendon is a small-scale fisherman who is based in the Galapagos archipelago. He’s married to guide Ivonne Torres and used to serve as the president of the Fisherman’s Cooperative in the Galapagos.
 
This fleet is causing us so many problems. A fellow fisherman found empty barrels of petrol floating in the sea. They had Chinese characters on them.

These metal barrels, marked with Chinese characters, were discovered in the sea. Photos posted on Facebook on July 24. 
 
These vessels have longlines that are up to 100 kilometres in length and capture everything in their wake, both large and small fish. They follow the currents and the schools of fish and create a barrier between them and the Galapagos Islands. So we have fewer fish to catch than normal. Currently, I have to spend five days at sea to bring in what I used to catch in a day or two before. 
"This large-scale fishing will affect certain protected species, like sharks”

Alex Hearn is a professor of marine biology at the University of San Francisco de Quito and a member of the MigraMar network. He has been studying the effects of this fleet. 
 
In fact, it’s not just one fleet; it’s several that are grouped together and are using different fishing techniques. A lot of these vessels are either squid-fishing or longlining. Each has a different impact on the environment. The sharp decrease in the squid population is going to upset the ecosystem because they are a source of food for many other species. 

Longline fishing will directly impact certain protected species, like sharks. Sharks are an essential link in the animal food chain, but the people who live on the islands depend on them as well because they make a living through tourism. And when tourists come, that’s the animal they want to see. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Aug. 2 criticised China for the fleet’s activities and offered support to Ecuador and any other states “whose economies and natural resources are threatened by PRC-flagged vessels’ disregard for the rule of law and responsible fishing practices”. 

The Chinese embassy in Ecuador responded with their own statement: "According to verified information, all of the ships that were criticized by Mike Pompeo are currently operating legally in international waters outside of the Galapagos Islands economic zone and aren’t a threat to anyone.”

Article by Liselotte Mas