Illegal Fishing in Galapagos Threatens Ecosystem and Economy

By Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

The LA Times’ Susanne Rust reported on a brewing controversy surrounding China’s notorious “distant water” fishing fleet — it’s 17,000 vessels strong and has conducted dubious fishing operations off the coasts of West Africa, Argentina, and Japan. This past summer, a fleet of Chinese fishing boats was spotted in the waters surrounding the Galapagos Islands, which are a protected marine reserve. Due to COVID-19, the local tour boats and fishing vessels that acted as the unofficial guardians of the islands have been kept on land, leaving an opening for illegal fishing operations to take hold. More than 300 Chinese vessels, many equipped to hold 1,000 tons of fish, fished right along the border of the Galapagos Island Reserve, waiting to ambush migrating fish populations right on the line.

Why this Matters: The Galapagos Islands hold a bounty of flora and fauna; 20% of the species found in the Galapagos aren’t found anywhere else in the world.  Illegal fishing in the region is anything but new, but in late August 2020, the number of illegal fishing vessels exploded. With China set to host the UN Conference on Biodiversity next year and holding the Chairmanship of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, it’s time to call them on their lawless fishing fleet.

The Galapagos Reserve Is Vulnerable 

A new study shows that the fleet was primarily fishing for squid, crucial to the diets of many Galapagos marine animals, and commercial fish species like tuna and billfish that local fishermen rely on to support their economy.  The U.S. Coast Guard was called to help the Ecuadorian navy patrol the area. Capt. Brian Anderson, commanding officer of the Coast Guard cutter Bertholf, reported that the vessels were practicing transshipment, delivering their plunder to a nearby tanker ship, and returning to open waters to fish more, repeating the process for months. “It was like a city,” Anderson said. Transshipment practices, when done illegally, obscure accurate fishing estimates, and harm small island communities that lack resources to protect their waters.

The marine reserve is designated as a UNESCO world heritage site and covers 133,000 square kilometers covering the islands and the surrounding ocean. UNESCO notes illegal fishing practices as one of the primary threats to the islands’ ecosystem. Illegal fishing boats skirt the edge of the preserve to catch fish migrating south toward Chile and Peru.

In a 2019 report on illegal, unreported, and unregulated (“IUU”) fishing, China was ranked as the worst offender globally. China has been implicated in overfishing practices, targeting endangered shark populations, false licensing, and even forced labor.  Marla Valentine, an illegal fishing and transparency analyst for the environmental group Oceana, said, “Sadly, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact of China’s huge distant-water fishing fleet on our oceans.”

Facing Multiple Epidemics

The Galapagos Islands’ economy is 90% dependent on tourism and, due to COVID-19, that market has plummeted. Tour boats, which highlight the beauty of the islands’ ecosystem and emphasize conservation, have been docked for months, and restaurants and shops in residential areas have been closed. Before COVID-19, the islands saw up to 1,000 daily visitors, and although the onslaught of tourists can often threaten wildlife, the loss of income from the tourist economy leaves few resources with which to protect that wildlife. Fiddi Angermeyer, a local tour operator and business owner, expressed worry, “if there are no tourists, there is no park. And if there’s no park, there are no tourists.”

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