They arrived as a powerful gang of long steel logs stalking the limits of the exclusive areas of the Galapagos and the continent. They were located in intermediate international waters and fished for several weeks, on the edge of what was allowed, until little by little they moved away from the radar. They are part of the Chinese oceanic fleet that travels the world capturing the resources that are already scarce in its seas.
Their presence exposed a complex problem: a little regulated activity, insufficient controls and an outdated legal framework. The backdrop is the scarcity of fishing.
It is known that they arrived in June and that many fish for giant squid, they are called jiggers. However, it is very difficult to distinguish what happens within that great mass that exceeds 300 ships of more than 55 meters long each, not even their exact number is known. “Last year they were on the north coast of Peru, they should have been in southern Ecuador, but this time they got too close to the sanctuary of the Galapagos Islands,” said Alfonso Miranda, president of the Calamasur union, of which Ecuador is part. Miranda regards the Chinese overseas fleet as the “permanent bad pupils” of the international fisheries regulation organizations.
The Chinese jigging fleet was already close to Galapagos between June and August 2016 (Capture of the 2020 Annual Report, Scientific Committee of the SPRFMO).
The Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) has become a great breeding ground for species, but the animals cross borders and as soon as they leave the sanctuary they become easy prey, there are more and more boats to capture them, explained biologist Alex Hearn, professor from the College of Biological and Environmental Sciences of the San Francisco de Quito University.
EL UNIVERSO newspaper and the Mongabay Latam portal identified at least 140 vessels and the companies to which they belong, one of them is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and others that have violated fishing regulations in Argentina. This report is part of the special Illegal Fishing: The Great Threat to Latin American Marine Sanctuaries, in which the Ciper (Chile) and Cuestion Pública (Colombia) portals also participate.
“Galapagos is a ‘major exporter’ of large commercially important pelagics and marine megafauna,” said Pablo Guerrero, director of marine conservation for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
However, there are some species threatened by fishing pressure. The critical case is the hammerhead shark. On June 1, the ban on marketing it was announced. “It’s a step forward because now the fishermen are not going to have any incentive to land it,” Hearn said. Tour operators point out that a dead specimen costs $ 200 but the one-week diving fee to see them in their habitat is $ 7,000 per person, excluding travel expenses. His disappearance would be a biological and economic tragedy.
The “export” of Galapagos is so abundant that satellite maps show how industrial fishing vessels, including Chinese vessels, set up like a wall bordering the limits of the insular exclusive economic zone to capture the catch.
The magnitude of the Chinese fleet and its proximity to the Galapagos set off all the global alerts. The jigging fleet travels the South Atlantic and then goes up through Chile, Peru and southern Ecuador, they are voyages of many months. In mid-August, the Ecuadorian Navy announced that the squad consisted of some 325 units. “In this period 149 ships have turned off their satellite system, that is also recorded … even some ships have changed their identification,” said the commander of the Navy, Darwin Jarrín.
EL UNIVERSO was able to confirm with the Insular Operations Command (Galapagos) the names of at least 139 ships that make up the squad, more than a third. It was started from a list provided by the Argentine marine conservation specialist Milko Schvartzman with 280 boats. According to the Operations Command, the rest of the 141 vessels did not appear in its system or were sailing elsewhere.
They all have a Chinese flag and are registered with the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO) (SPRFMO, which regulates the capture of horse mackerel and giant squid). According to information from the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the ships are owned by 34 companies, most of them based in Zhoushan, in Zheijang province, on the East China Sea. Many of these companies include in their name the city or province where they are registered.
Ten of these companies operate 95 of the 139 vessels identified in the squadron and some also operate more vessels registered in other RFMOs. In general, companies register them with a generic name followed by a number.
Thus, Fujian Pingtan County Ocean, based in the Fujian province, owns 21 ships identified near the Galapagos, almost all built in 2019 and whose cost can reach $ 4 million per ship if it is very well equipped. Its ships are named “Fu Yuan Yu” and a numerical sequence: Fu Yuan Yu 7602 or Fu Yuan Yu 7890. In the IMO it registers 77 units in total. This firm is based at the headquarters of Pingtan Marine Enterprise Ltd., one of the largest marine services companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange. On its website, the multinational reported that its revenues in the first half of 2020 were $ 40.8 million and that its fleet operates in India and Indonesia.
It is followed by the Zhoushan Ningtai Ocean Fish companies with 18 identified vessels named Ning Tai; China Aquatic Products with the so-called Zhou Yu and the Zhoushan Jinhai Deep-Sea firm with the Jin Hai, with ten units each, and the Chinese company Yantai Marine Fisheries with eight.
To these 139 is added the Panamanian freighter Yong Xiang 9 that was registered in the South Pacific RFMO (Sprfmo) by Hong Kong Yong Xiang Shipping Limited (based at the facilities of East Maritime Services Co. Limited, in Hong Kong). The ship was recorded on video in early August in international waters off Ecuador, but according to the Marine Traffic portal, the last time it had updated its location was in March and it was off the coast of Japan.
Among the group of companies, but only with the Chang Shun No.1 ship, is China Kingdom Shipping Ltd., which operates at the headquarters of China National Fisheries Corp. (CNFC), controlled by China Agricultural Development Co., the large conglomerate. state. CNFC produces about 100,000 tons per year and is present in Africa through joint ventures. In March 2016, the Argentine navy sank the Lu Yu Yuan 10 jigger, belonging to its subsidiary Shandong Yantai Marine Fisheries Co., according to the SeefoodSource portal.
In the squadron there are two ships that have already been pointed out by the Argentine Navy and Puerto de Argentina Magazine , for invading the Exclusive Zone of that country last April, said Schvartzman, of the Circle of Environmental Policies. These are Run Da 613, from the company Zhoushan Run Da Ocean Fish, and Hai Yang 2, from the company RongCheng Marine Fishery Co.
Schvartzman directed a program on the incidence of the Chinese fleet in the port of Montevideo. Many operators use these facilities for refueling, such as the Qingdao Haoyang Ocean Fishery Company (the Lu Qing Yuan Yu). Some jiggers dock for humanitarian reasons: disembarking sick or deceased crew members. Since 2019, some of these ships were the Dong Yu 1519, the Fu Yuan Yu 7614 and the Lu Qing Yuan Yu 276, which make up the flotilla that sailed near the Galapagos.
Two years earlier, the firm that owns a Chinese ship was denounced in Uruguay for mistreating the crew and on another occasion four sailors of Indonesian nationality escaped from a ship because they had not been paid their wages for six months. The Indonesian Embassy had to intervene and repatriate them. The Ecuadorian Navy indicated that it does not have records of forced arrivals of these ships to Ecuadorian ports.
On the South Pacific coast, the main supply point is Chimbote (in northern Peru), where around 300 Chinese ships dock each year. Calamasur promotes regulations in Peru so that when a ship is received, its satellite tracking system can be analyzed at least six months before its arrival, a rule that Chile already has. The aim is to ensure that vessels have not fished in prohibited areas.
At the end of August, the Chinese ambassador to Ecuador, Chen Guoyou, assured the National Assembly in Quito that the ships report their location every hour and that he has been asked “that they cannot enter the exclusive economic zone of the Galapagos Islands”.
The diplomat rejected that the ships of his country violate international norms. “Regarding the recent reports by the private media, that the Chinese ships have switched off their satellite positioning, we can say that according to our monitoring, except for some delays or temporary loss of signal, all ships are still operating and using the monitoring system ”, he insisted. Finally, he said that “we have not found any case that Chinese ships have turned off their satellite positioning, as the Ecuadorian Government and the Minister of Defense (Oswaldo Jarrín) have declared.”
EL UNIVERSO newspaper twice asked for an interview with Ambassador Chen Guonyou to talk about the matter but he did not grant it.
Analysts say China is a pupil left in regional fisheries regulation organizations
Several directors of conservation programs interviewed by EL UNIVERSO agree on the little control exercised by the Chinese Government over its oceanic fleet and on its record of “bad students” before the fisheries regulation organizations (RFMOs). A negligent act considering that China has the largest fleet in the world and is the first global exporter of fish products.
In 2018, it reached 15% of the world’s marine catches and was the first exporter with 14% of the total (followed by Norway with 7%), according to the report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations ( FAO) of this year. The Asian giant announced in 2017 its commitment to reduce its fleet to only 3,000 ships by 2020, a goal that has not yet been evaluated.
The reasons listed by the interviewees are various. They highlighted that they do not have independent scientific observers, who collect information on fishing days, type of catches, incidental fishing, waste and transshipments, to send their reports to intergovernmental entities. In the case of jiggers, the South Pacific RFMO (Sprfmo) approved that as of January 1, 2021, they must carry observers in 5% of the vessels.
The vessels, they said, are not properly controlled upon arrival either, China has not signed the FAO “Agreement on port state measures aimed at preventing and eliminating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.” The treaty is key, explained Jorge Guerrero, from the WWF, because it creates protocols to have traceability of the catches: who fished what and where. It also prohibits the use of the port for fishing transshipment.
The transfer of fishing is what allows the fleet to travel the world because it delivers its catch on the high seas to freighters, which take it to port, while it continues sailing.
Another problem is that they turn off the satellite location, as tested with the Fun Yuan Yu Leng 999 freighter, captured in the Galapagos in 2017, they added. In the case of the fleet that encircled Galapagos, some ships do not appear with their real position in the Marine Traffic portal, they have not updated it for several weeks. However, the Chinese ambassador assured that according to his monitoring there is no such problem.
In a report from China to the South Pacific RFMO on squid catches, from October 2019, the movements of the vessels between 2016 and 2018 are included. Always during June, July and August they sailed between mainland Ecuador and Galapagos, and encircled the insular exclusive zone. In that RFMO, China has registered 694 vessels with an average length of 59 meters.
The report is a confirmation of the shortage: the boats are increasing but they are catching less and less fish per vessel. The report is a confirmation of the shortage: the boats are increasing but they are catching less and less fish per vessel. Thus, in 2014 with 264 ships they managed to raise 325 thousand tons of giant squid, two years later with 276 ships they reached 223 thousand and in 2018 with 435 ships they captured 346 thousand tons. The average catch per boat in 2014 was 1231 tons and in 2018, 796 tons.
The other RFMO is the Inter-American Tuna Commission (IATTC), in which Asians prevent passing more stringent regulations for longline vessels. At the IATTC, of which Ecuador is also a member, decisions are made by consensus, that is, with the agreement of all members.
At the Commission, tuna purse seiners (which cast a large net that is then collected with the help of a crane) have stricter rules than longline vessels, which cast long lines with other verticals with hooks. Transshipment at sea is prohibited for purse seiners over 373 tonnes and observers are mandatory, while for longline vessels it is not.
“Asian countries have always been opposed to bringing independent observers into their tuna longline fleet,” commented an IATTC official who requested the reservation. These countries have 74% of that fleet: China with 413 vessels, Korea 193, Japan 189 and Taiwan 134. Ecuador, in contrast, has only registered 22 longliners, since the majority of its fleet is purse seine (112 vessels).
Pablo Guerrero reported that for five years the IATTC scientists have asked that the percentage of observers rise from 5% to 20%, but the proposal has no consensus. In 2019, 25% of Ecuadorian longline vessels carried observers, while for the Chinese, that percentage reached 0.07%.
The longline has a high rate of bycatch because it is not only the tunas that are caught on the hooks. The IATTC declared as species of maximum vulnerability the giant manta ray and the bigeye thresher, pelagic fox, hammerhead and silky sharks.
The problems of the fleet are not foreign to the Government of China. Although it receives state subsidies, its exponential growth generates conflicts. China announced last June a ban on squid in the Pacific west of Galapagos, between July and September, and in the South Atlantic, between September and November. According to the Chinese Dialogue portal, which published the map where the closed season prevailed, this would allow the reproduction of the mollusk. By then, the crew of 300 boats was already climbing towards Ecuador and stayed in international waters where the closure was not applied. “Ideally, China should share its statistics with the South Pacific RFMO so that it can dictate management measures for all; Conservation measures cannot be declared unilaterally from the Olympics, ”Guerrero criticized.
Beyond any satellite tracking, the Galapagueños confirmed the arrival of the squad due to the garbage that began to flow from the south in late June. Just as the Humboldt current brings life, in recent years it has also brought us a lot of garbage: plastic bottles, shoes, buckets and even fishing nets, explained Sofía Green, a biologist who works in the archipelago. “The bottles are unmistakable for their Asian characters and we know that they come from the south, they do not come from Asia,” he said. Another biologist said “we have found longlines and radio buoys with Chinese acronyms.”
Protests were held on the islands in mid-August and dozens of plastic bottles were hung as a shameful display of the damage caused. Ships of death! and SOS Galapagos! were the slogans. “It is our natural capital that is being destroyed,” claimed Nicolás Vera Schies from the Colectivo Frente Insular Reserva Marina Somos Todos.
Only since January of this year, Ecuador is better equipped to police its exclusive economic zones. The captain of the ship, Patricio Mora López, commander of Insular Operations based in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, explained that the Navy has a maritime satellite tracking system.
Until last year this surveillance was very poor. Still, in 2017 the Fun Yuan Yu Leng 999 freighter was caught, which according to the IMO registry belongs to the Chinese firm Fuzhou Honglong Ocean Fishing. The ship had entered the reserve and had 300 tons in its hold, mostly sharks (6,223 specimens). Investigations confirmed that the freighter had interruptions in its satellite transmission. At the end of the judicial process, Ecuador confiscated the boat valued at $ 6 million.
If a boat does not carry illegal fishing and only has a problem with its documents, for example, the Maritime Police Code applies, which dates from 1960 and whose maximum fine is 5 thousand sucres or 20 cents, explained Captain Mora. . In 2018, a draft Navigation Law was presented, but it has not yet been approved by the National Assembly.
Ecuador must present any claim to international organizations: IMO, CIAT and the South Pacific RFMO. The political tinge is already present. It is no secret that the country is going through an economic crisis and that China is one of its creditors with more than $ 5.4 billion. Sanitary sanctions imposed on Ecuadorian shrimp have contracted exports by tens of millions of dollars. At the end of September, the authorities proposed to enable part of the Ecuadorian fishing fleet to catch giant squid and sell it to China.
In diplomacy, silences reign, however, the United States wants to play a role in this work that confronts the tiny Ecuador with the Asian giant. The Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has asked through his Twitter account that China control the “illegal fishing” of its fleet. In the latest tweet, posted on August 27, Pompeo demanded that China “be transparent and adhere to its own policy of zero tolerance for illegal fishing.”
Just as the Fun Yuan Yu Leng 999 became a symbol of the threats to the GMR, the seizure of 26 tons of shark fins in Hong Kong from Ecuador last year is further evidence of the stalking that haunts the oasis. Biologist Jonathan Green calculated that those 26,000 kilos of fins would represent 17,000 sharks. “We are going towards a genetic collapse of certain species and that is no longer recoverable,” he warned.
How to protect islands from fishing pressure? Several aces are shuffled. It is considered an expansion of the Marine Reserve and President Lenín Moreno announced it last year in Madrid. That would mean a reduction of the 148 miles of the Exclusive Economic Zone, which must include a difficult negotiation with the artisanal and industrial fishing industry that operates there. The Navy must complete a geological study so that the platform between the Islands and the coastal profile is recognized as a single extension, and thus guarantee sovereignty over the subsoil. Finally, progress is made in scientific studies to declare another oceanic oasis: a migration route between Galapagos and Isla de Cocos (Costa Rica) to protect sharks, manta rays, tunas and other species. It is unlikely that everything will be achieved until June next year,when the gang of steel logs round up Galapagos again. (I)