Satellite data nails Chinese fishing fleet near ecologically sensitive Galápagos Islands
By Anusuya Datta
China is in the news again, and once again over controversial reasons. Discovery of a vast fleet of Chinese fishing vessels just outside the Galapagos Island’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) stirred outrage both in Ecuador and overseas.
The unique satellite-based radio frequency tracking abilities of HawkEye 360 provided quick situational awareness of fleet activity. Data published by HawkEye 360, a small sat company specializing in RF geo-analytics, on September 30 reveals that the Chinese vessels deactivated their Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracking system hundreds of times to “go dark”. There are also evidences of illegal fishing, with multiple instances of dark vessels operating within the Galápagos EEZ. Chinese Ambassador to Ecuador Chen Guoyou had on August 24 denied the allegations of Ecuador’s armed forces which said 149 of some 325 vessels fishing near the ecologically sensitive islands had turned off tracking systems to prevent monitoring of their activities.
HawkEye 360 also conducted a joint RF and SAR collection with partner Airbus Defence and Space Intelligence. By fusing multiple forms of intelligence, they found many dark vessels and a better understanding of fleet activity. On August 1, while HawkEye 360 collected RF signal data multiple times throughout the day, Airbus tasked its TerraSAR-X satellite to capture a large scale ScanSAR radar image.
Airbus’ satellite-based vessel detection chain extracted 58 vessels locations from the SAR image and provided estimated size and heading for each vessel. Comparing these locations against +/- 60 minutes of AIS data matched 16 vessels to AIS tracking, reinforcing the many gaps in the AIS record. Image courtesy HawkEye 360
Graver than illegal fishing
The issue becomes graver since Galápagos Islands are deemed a “living museum and showcase for evolution” by UNESCO, and are home to a diverse range of geological features, wildlife and marine life, including several rare and endangered species.
Chinese fishing vessels have been identified in the waters in the vicinity of the Galápagos over the past several years. In 2017 the Ecuadorean Navy captured a Chinese fishing vessel within the Galápagos marine reserve carrying 300 tons of marine wildlife, including endangered species.
The analysis revealed that the bulk of the fleet appeared careful to not cross the EEZ boundary — coming as close to the line as possible without violating international law. Although it’s technically not illegal to fish in this manner, such intensive and large-scale fishing by the fleet pushes the bounds of proper behavior, stripping adjacent waters of many types of marine life.
Further, since the vessels had the AIS switched off there is always the possibility of them violating the laws since large gaps in AIS records create opportunity for vessels to engage in illegal behavior without notice.
HawkEye 360’s SEAker analytics identifies gaps in the AIS records where vessels seem to disappear for eight or more hours.
As the Chinese fleet entered the region, the preponderance of dark tracks rapidly increased, with Chinese-flagged vessels representing 87% of all gaps by the end of July. Likewise, when examined by vessel type, fishing vessels composed 90% of all gaps.
The EEZ for the Galápagos Archipelago encompasses 700,000 sqkm – larger than Texas and effectively patrolling it using traditional coast guard or airplane-based observation is near impossible.
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