Hundreds of Chinese vessels have been fishing for weeks in the exclusive economic zone of the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago off the Pacific coast of Ecuador. This has authorities, scientists, and conservationists alarmed over the effects they would have on some of the local wildlife.
The Galapagos Islands, a World Heritage site whose wildlife helped Charles Darwin come up with the theory of evolution, are known for their abundance of indigenous species such as Darwin’s finches, a group of passerine birds, and the massive Galapagos tortoise.
The Chinese ships, which are also accompanied by ships from other countries such as Liberia or Panama, are in a corridor of international waters that separates the two areas of Ecuadorian jurisdiction: 200 miles that surround the Galapagos Islands and another 200 miles stretching from the mainland.
The surface area monitored and controlled by Ecuador totals a million kilometers but it is split in half and it is right in that corridor of the high seas where the fishing fleet that threatens marine species has settled. This situation is repeated every year. Last year, Ecuador detected the presence of 245 Chinese fishing vessels.
One of the most emblematic cases of illegal fishing in the world still remains in the memory of many Ecuadorians. That's the case of the Chinese ship Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 that was intercepted by the Ecuadorian navy in 2017 within the Galapagos Marine Reserve and that hid 300 tons of sharks inside.
The presence of the Chinese fleet was detected in mid-July but in the last few weeks, the matter has escalated to the diplomatic plane. Ecuador sent warnings to China through local embassies and also started talks with neighboring countries such as Chile and Colombia, also recently affected by the fishing fleet.
"This is not something that will change overnight," said Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Luis Gallegos in a television interview on Sunday. "It is necessary to … generate bilateral agreements with other countries with regards to illegal fishing, to monitor every ship that’s in the South Pacific."
The United States also recently weighed into the dispute, siding with Ecuador. "It is time for China to stop its unsustainable fishing practices, rule-breaking, and willful environmental degradation of the oceans," U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said on Twitter.
The main objective of the Chinese fleet is to catch giant squid (Dosidicus gigas). While this is not illegal as it takes place in international waters, environmental activists in Ecuador say it allows fleets to take advantage of the abundant marine species that spillover from the islands and cross into the unprotected waters.
There are more than 30 species of sharks living in Galapagos, some of which are threatened with extinction, such as the Endangered whale shark (Rhincodon typus) or the Critically Endangered hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini). Many of them constantly move between the islands and the mainland.
The high seas, also called international waters, cover 41% of the planet and 60% of all the oceans on Earth. However, there is almost no law that sets rules about how much, how, what and when to fish here. That’s why environmentalists are asking for a global treaty that sets a framework for conserving biodiversity in the high seas.