The Route of the Chinese Fishing Fleets and Their Illegal Antecedents

The route of the Chinese fishing fleets and their illegal antecedentsby Michelle Carrere on 10 August 2020

  1. For about four years the Chinese fleet has been repeating a journey that goes from the South Atlantic, in front of Argentina, to the outskirts of Galapagos, passing through Chile and Peru.
  2. The vessel that was persecuted by the Argentine Navy for illegally fishing in that country’s waters in April of this year is fishing on the limits of the Galapagos.

At the beginning of June, a Chinese fleet made up of around 260 boats, reached the limits of the exclusive economic zone of Galapagos to fish for giant squid ( Dosidicus gigas ). For two months, the fleet has skirted this area, moving west amid the outrage that its presence has caused among Ecuadorians, scientists and conservationists around the world.


The fleet is in international waters and, according to the Ecuadorian authorities, no ship has crossed the maritime limits of Ecuador. In other words, so far no illegality has been detected. However, the concern is high because, according to scientists and fishery analysts, the volume of fishing is so high that the resource may be overexploited. In addition, species threatened with extinction could be being captured by these boats. But not only that, within this fleet there are vessels with a history of illegal fishing, says Milko Schvartzman, a marine conservation specialist at the Argentine organization Environmental Policy Circle, who has studied this fleet for years.


Experts assure that the presence of these Chinese ships is not a problem only for Ecuador, but also reaches other countries in the region. Every year they travel a route that goes from the South Atlantic, along Argentina to the South Pacific, ending in the limits of the Galapagos after passing through Chile and Peru. Thus, at least two boats that have been caught fishing illegally in Argentine waters and that have been pursued by the Navy of that country are currently fishing south of Galapagos, confirmed the specialist of the Environmental Policy Circle.


The route of the Chinese ships 

Between December and May, the controversial Chinese fleet fishes for another variety of giant squid, the Illex argentinus, in the Western South Atlantic, off Argentina. Then, between May and July, it moves to the Pacific, passing through the Strait of Magellan, and begins to operate from the north of Chile, bordering the exclusive economic zone of that country, to continue climbing towards Peru in the direction of Galapagos and then returns.


“There are years that start a little further north,” says Schvartzman. For example, “this year the fleet has started the season closer to Peru than to Chile, but there have been years when the fleet has been operating on the edge of Chile’s exclusive economic zone,” adds the expert. These variations depend on the movement of the squid, says Max Bello, an expert in public policy for the conservation of the oceans and a member of the Mission Blue organization, created by renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle.


In Bello’s opinion, the difference is that this year “[the ships] have come much closer to the exclusive economic zone and two or three years ago we did not have the level of satellite information that we have today,” adds the conservationist.


Indeed, the viewing platforms show that “we are talking about a gigantic fleet,” says Luis Suárez, director of the NGO Conservation International in Ecuador. However, according to Bello, it is not possible to know exactly how many boats make up the fleet, since “all the numbers that we know are not real or official and we do not have a real clarity of how much they are fishing.” As he explains, this is due to the fact that these ships constantly change their register, turn off their satellite transmitters and have no observers on board.


The large volumes of fish that these boats would be catching are the main concern of scientists. Marine biologist Alex Hearn, Vice President of the NGO Migramar , which specializes in migratory species especially sharks, explains that the overfishing of the giant squid could lead to ecological problems since different species, some of them emblematic of Galapagos such as the hammerhead shark ( sphyrna lewini ), they feed mainly on it. In addition, scientists fear that the ships are catching species threatened with extinction.


Those who are also concerned are the industrial and artisanal fishermen in South American countries who fish for squid, as well as the companies that process this resource. Pascual Aguilera, Spokesperson for Chile’s National Coordinator of Jibieros, assures that “they are true cities, a cordon, a wall [of boats]”, which settle to fish within the 200-mile limit where the exclusive economic zone ends or the territorial sea of each country. For this reason, “we see that the resource is increasingly scarce, we have to go looking for it further and further,” says the fisherman.


In addition, Alfonso Miranda, president of the Committee for the Sustainable Management of the Giant Squid (Calamasur), adds that the concern is greater since this fleet “has illegal, transgressive behavior within our maritime domains,” he says.


In fact, Schvartzman has identified that in the fleet that is currently fishing off the Galapagos territory, there are at least two boats that have a history of illegal fishing and that have been pursued by the Argentine Navy, captured and sanctioned.


One of the ships that make up the huge Chinese fleet south of Galapagos is the Hua Li 8. It was on Monday, February 29, 2016 when the ship was detected illegally fishing 800 meters within the Argentine sea. Faced with an attempt to be detained by the coast guard, the Hua Li 8 fled into international waters without even responding to warning shots fired by the navy.


A few days later, on March 3 of that same year, the ship re-entered Argentine territory. This time she was heading for the port of Montevideo. Argentina mobilized two Coast Guard ships and a helicopter into the area and began a five-hour film chase. However, the ship managed to escape, although two months later it was captured by the Indonesian Armed Forces.


Today, the Hua Li 8 is fishing in the limits of the exclusive economic zone of Galapagos , as confirmed by Schvartzman through the analysis of the Global Fishing Watch platform. The expert assures that this is only one case since the Lu Rong Yuan Yu 668, which was also persecuted by the Argentine Navy in April this year for illegally fishing, is also present in the south of Galapagos.


A regional problem “This is a regional problem and all countries have responsibility. No one is 100% victim, ”says Schvartzman, as they provide logistical support so that these vessels can operate.
In the analyst’s opinion, “Argentina has responsibility because it should not release the captured ships.” Currently the offending vessels are taken to port where they remain for a time and are punished with a fine. However, “purely economic sanctions are not enough to prevent, discourage and combat predation and illegal fishing,” says a document that the organization Circle of Environmental Policies submitted to the Congress of that country where a bill to toughen sanctions.


Ecuador, for its part, has at least one oil tanker that supplies Asian vessels. This was demonstrated by the Ecuadorian Navy when it detected, last year, the vessel María del Carmen IV, of the Ecuadorian flag, supplying the Chinese fleet with fuel while it was, as this year, fishing off the exclusive economic zone of Galapagos. The company that owns the ship, Oceanbat SA, assured in a statement , addressed to the newspaper El Telégrafo, that the activities were carried out with all the necessary permits.


In addition, Schvartzman’s analysis shows that Panama has mother ships or reefers that receive fishing from the Asian vessels on the high seas to later take it to ports in Peru and mainly to the port of Montevideo in Uruguay.


The expert points out that “it does not necessarily mean that the Chinese boat that passed the fishing to the Panamanian reefer has made illegal fishing.” However, he adds that one of the reasons for transshipment offshore is to launder the catch. “ Reefers receive loads from many fishing vessels made up of different species that were caught in different places. This is mixed in the hold [both legally and illegally caught fish] and no one can later know to which ship the cargo that comes in the reefer belongs , ”explains Schvartzman. In fact, according to the FAO , transshipment is the biggest cause of illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing.


Flor Torrijos, director of the Panama Aquatic Resources Authority, assured Mongabay Latam that all Panamanian-flag cargo ships must have an observer on board. “It is a mandate from the IATTC [Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission] and from Panama that all vessels that provide support to purse-seine vessels must have an observer on board,” and she added that there is “”A lot of control and vigilance over Panamanian vessels anywhere in the world and now especially over this area [around the exclusive economic zone of Galapagos].”


Schvartzman points out that “it is important that Latin American countries form a bloc to fight illegal fishing and part of that is to prevent collaboration with this fleet”, alluding to port services, transshipments and fuel supply.


The president of Ecuador, Lenín Moreno, announced the formation of a team of experts to design a protection strategy for the Galapagos Islands. Private sector actors – both artisanal and industrialists and giant squid processing companies in the region – also signed an agreement to demand that distant water fleets be regulated and inspected.


Faced with pressure, China announced last Thursday a fishing ban on its boats in the vicinity of the exclusive economic zone of Galapagos, however, Max Bello warns that “it would be necessary to study whether this closure is going to have an effect or not, because it could be that it coincides with the time when the resource is no longer in that place and they are simply going to move the fleet from place to place, but that is part of the normal action of the fishery ”.

Informing and sharing news on marine life, flora, fauna and conservation in the Galápagos Islands since 2017
© SOS Galápagos, 2020


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