Huge fishing fleet off South America: China’s Raid

Huge fishing fleet off South America: China’s Raid

An armada of Chinese ships has sailed near the Galapagos Islands. In some places they account for 99 percent of the catch, and the Ecuadorian government is outraged.

19.09.2020, 12.26 p.m.

A ship of the Ecuadorian Navy circling a fishing boat Photo: Santiago Arcos / REUTERS

The Galapagos Islands are a unique natural paradise in the Pacific. The archipelago is home to numerous endemic animal and plant species – so they only occur on the islands or in the surrounding marine environment. The secluded location, about a thousand kilometers off the Ecuadorian coast in South America, is enough to protect this paradise, one would think.

But in recent years fishermen have threatened the aquatic habitat with sometimes enormous fleets. Hundreds of ships cast their nets there – most of them come from China. As a result, there were repeated conflicts with the government of Ecuador. One of the allegations: the fishing vessels deliberately switch off their tracking systems in order to fish undetected within protected areas.

This season, too, Chinese fishermen came back with a whole fleet. The environmental organization Oceana counted almost 300 ships. It has documented the extent of the Chinese fishing off the protected archipelago. According to this, the fleet completed fishing trips of an astonishing 73,000 hours in one month. The Chinese are mainly targeting squid. How many tons were caught is not known. Squid are the main food source for seals and sharks in the region.

Satellite data show the position of ships along the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The color indicates degree of fishing activity. Photo: Oceana

Oceana data was collected from July 13th through August 13th. They only provide a small sample of the fishing activities in the region. But that already raises questions about the consequences of massive fishing, according to a report. 99 percent of the recognized fishing boats came from China. Only ten boats from other countries were recognized in the analysis. They fished about 775 hours in the four weeks.

The environmentalists used data from Global Fishing Watch (GFW) for the investigation. For this initiative, Oceana has been evaluating satellite images together with Google and the non-profit organization SkyTruth since 2016. An algorithm uses the ship’s movements, speed and direction to calculate whether a ship is currently on a fishing trip – when its speed is slightly reduced. However, according to the report, deviations are also possible. Depending on the data quality, ships could be on a fishing trip without the algorithm recognizing this. On the other hand, movements identified as fishing trips could not be any. So there are still some uncertainties in the data.

The Ecuadorian government worried back in August that there are currently hundreds of mostly Chinese fishing vessels sailing off the coast of the protected Galapagos Islands. At that time the country complained about the opaque actions of the Chinese. It was said that the boats were in international waters, but the Automatic Identification System (AIS) of some boats would be switched off more often, so it is no longer possible to determine where the fish are being caught.

According to Oceana data, 43 cases of AIS disconnections by Chinese ships were recorded during the period under review. On average, the system, which sends data on, among other things, the position, ship name or ship type via VHF radio, did not send any information for two days. One ship did not send any data for 17 days. However, the data do not provide any evidence that the ships actually entered unauthorized areas around the Galapagos Islands, an area of ​​133,000 square kilometers is protected.

There have been a number of illegal activities that have been detected in the past. In 2017, a Chinese fishing boat was captured with rare species of shark off the Galapagos Islands. The crew had around 300 tons of fish on board. The fishermen were sentenced to prison terms.

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

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