EcoAméricas: Intense Fishing Near Galápagos Spurs Corridor Plan

The Chinese fishing fleet that appears off the Galápagos every year includes support ships that take on each boat’s catch for refrigeration and transport, helping the fleet to stay at sea for long periods. (Photo courtesy of Ecuadorian Navy)

EcoAméricas: ongoing, objective coverage of Latin American environmental developments and trends

Intense fishing near Galapagos

In May, Ecuadorian scientists lost track of Esperanza, a whale shark equipped with a satellite transmitter to track its movements in and beyond the waters of the Galapagos Islands. What made the loss of contact particularly worrying was ​​a gigantic fishing fleet present in the area, made up of hundreds of vessels. The mostly Chinese fleet has arrived annually since 2017 to cross international waters just off the Exclusive Economic Zone that surrounds the Galapagos, a 200-mile limit within which foreign fishing vessels are not allowed. 

The latest tracking data showed Esperanza in an area of ​​international waters where the fleet operated. In the last 30 minutes, it was moving at seven knots, much faster than the usual speed of its species of 1.5 knots. The data led experts to believe that it had been captured and carried by a fishing boat, perhaps one of the fleet, which had more than 340 vessels as of the middle of this month. 

Esperanza’s disappearance increased growing concern about the effect of large-scale fishing on marine species in the vicinity of the Galapagos, where underwater currents lift nutrient-rich waters from the depths of the ocean, attracting abundant marine life. The concern extends both to marine species that live year-round in Galapagos waters and those that migrate to the region, says Eliécer Cruz, program manager for American Latina at Island Conservation, a nonprofit organization with based in the United States. 

Captain Giorgio de la Torre, from the Ecuadorian Navy Institute of Oceanography, says that the Chinese fishing fleet that visits the Galapagos tends to stay at sea for two years in a row, manned by support vessels and periodically arriving in ports for repairs. He says that in the waters near the Galapagos the main target of the fleet is the Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas), also known as the giant squid. But the fleet’s indiscriminate fishing methods can trap other marine animals such as hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, silky sharks, and hake and, unintentionally as “bycatch,” dolphins and sea turtles, says Gunter Reck, former director of the Charles Darwin Research Station, a non-profit science center in the Galapagos. 

Reck notes that the bait placed on longlines drawn by fishing boats can also cause birds such as two endemic species to these islands to become hooked, with consequent death: the Galapagos albatross (Phoebastria irrorata) and the Galapagos petrel (Pterodroma phaeopygia), as well as other species that migrate between the islands and the South American continent. 

Reck and other experts believe that foreign vessels could be illegally fishing in the waters of the Exclusive Economic Zone around the Galapagos and even within the Galapagos Marine Reserve, which covers all waters within 40 nautical miles of the islands. Theoretically, no commercial boat can fish in the Marine Reserve. And in the waters of the Exclusive Economic Zone that extends beyond the reserve to the limit of 200 nautical miles, fishing is allowed only for Ecuadorian vessels. 

In the dark 

“These vessels tend to turn off their [tracking systems], so many of us doubt that they are not entering the protected area at night in some way,” says Reck. “They are fleets that cause a huge impact on marine populations as they use different fishing gear, including longlines and deep nets.” 

Experts concerned about the incursions point to the seizure by the Ecuadorian Navy in 2017 within the Marine Reserve of a Chinese ship carrying more than 300 tons of shark bodies (See “Chinese ship loaded with sharks is seized near Galapagos. ”-Eco Americas, August 2017). 

The huge, largely Chinese fleet that visits the Galapagos usually arrives in April or May from southern Peru, reaching the limit of Ecuador’s Exclusive Economic Zone that surrounds the Galapagos in May or June. This is when ocean currents cause cold waters that contain nutrients to rise from the seabed and rush into the area. July and August are considered the best fishing months, so the fleet increases accordingly, fishing in the area until September. Given that schedule, the recent offer by the Chinese government to Ecuador to suspend fishing from September to November generated widespread criticism. “The moratorium they are proposing is a mockery,” says Cruz, a former Ecuadorian natural resources official who in this role played a key role in the establishment of the reserve. 

Ecuador has been working on several fronts to address concerns about the increasingly intensive industrialized fishing’s impact on marine life. Foreign Minister Luis Gallegos has said he will try to forge a regional strategy through the Permanent Commission of the South Pacific, a maritime association made up of Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Meanwhile, a public-private commission created by Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno is studying a plan to create a conservation corridor that extends from the Galapagos to the Isla del Coco, in Costa Rica, located about 550 km from the Pacific coast. in Central America, this would effectively protect a huge stretch of water now open to fishing. 

Joint effort 

“Once Costa Rica and Ecuador formalize the creation of this corridor, which would become a binational protected area, it would enter into various international conservation protocols,” says Yolanda Kakabadse, a member of the public-private commission who has been Ecuadorian minister. of the environment and director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). 

Kakabadse says she hopes Colombia and Panama will reinforce this effort by incorporating their islands of Malpelo and Coiba, respectively, into the corridor, which she hopes will be registered with the IUCN before the end of this year. 

Environmentalists are also pushing to expand the Galapagos Exclusive Economic Zone and Marine Reserve. However, analysts consider that it is an uphill battle, as it would affect Ecuador’s fishing industry and, therefore, the country’s economy, which has been hit due to the Covid-19 restrictions and the fall of the price of oil, Ecuador’s main export. 

“The problem is not in the Exclusive Economic Zone or in the Reserve,” says Captain De la Torre. “The problem is that fishing is such a profitable business… and in Asian countries the re-demand is around 40 to 60 kilos from sea producers per capita per year. So [fishing] fleets are always going to be at the edge of the law anywhere in the world to fish. That is why regional actions are vital.” 

-Mercedes Álvaro 


Eliecer Cruz
Program Director For Latin America, Island Conservation
Santa Cruz, Galápagos, Ecuador
Tel + (593 99) 396-9808

Captain Giorgio de la Torre
Hydrography and Cartography Director
Institute of Oceanography, Ecuadorian Navy
Guayaquil, Ecuador
Tel + (593 990) 292-1358

Yolanda Kabadse
Member of the Ecuadorian Public-Private Commission for Marine Corridor
Quito, Ecuador
Tel + (593 99) 396-9808

Gunter Reck
Former director, Charles Darwin Research Station
Current director, Institute of Applied Ecology 

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