SOS Galapagos: Chinese Fleets Threaten the Marine Life Around the Galapagos Islands

In mid-July, the Armed Forces of Ecuador detected the presence of a massive Chinese fleet of 260 ships right at the edge of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Galapagos Islands, which belong to Ecuador. At the same time, the signal from a marked whale shark named Esperanza who has been transmitting its location since 2016, stopped its transmission. It was captured by one of the ships.

Vilma Vargas

Ever since the news broke out there have been huge outcries from many civic groups including environmentalists and NGOs worried about the impact of this fleet fishing exotic and endangered species. While the #SOSGALAPAGOS did become trendy in social media, there is little Ecuador, specifically the president Lenin Moreno can do, making this scene a gloomy one for the conservation of marine life.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time the Chinese cross the Pacific to fish attracted by the wide variety and amount of wildlife in the region. Studies found that almost ⅔ of all hammerhead fins in Hong Kong markets came from the water in the Galapagos. Fishing here is great for Chinese business. In 2017 around 300 boats approached the area. One of them called Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 was detained by the Ecuadorian Navy inside the Galapagos Maritime Reserve. Over 300 tons of catch was found aboard mostly scalloped hammerhead sharks, a critically endangered species. Again in 2018 and 2019, massive fishing fleets have lurked around the area unconscionably profiting from the abundant marine life of the area. The Chinese government has always claimed these ships are independent of government control. However, experts argue there is no way these ships can embark on such a long journey across the Pacific without being subsidized by the Chinese government.  

The main problem with this current “invasion” is its location. The Chinese fleet is very conveniently located right at the border of the EEZ, not in it, therefore it is in international waters. Exclusive Economic Zones are a concept introduced by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1986) that grant jurisdiction of 200 nautical miles to the coastal state. Ecuador in this case has jurisdiction over all the exploration and exploitation of marine resources within this area.  While individuals and their choices do shape foreign policy, unfortunately for the wildlife around the archipelago, this is not the case for the high sea. The fleet is located in an international corridor south of the islands’ EEZ. Fishing there is legal under the 1986 United Nations Convention, signed both by Ecuador and China.

The most worrisome issue is marine life does not follow any UN Convention or EEZs. Chinese ships can and do lure the fish and sharks with bait out of Ecuadorian waters to fish them in international waters. As the former Environment Minister in Ecuador, Yolanda Kakabadse explains: “This fleet’s size and aggressiveness against marine species is a big threat to the balance of species in the Galápagos”. Most of the species in the area are critically endangered. This archipelago has such unique biodiversity it not only inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, but it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. Ecuador has spent decades trying to protect this region not only for environmental reasons but also due to a large amount of tourism revenue the area generates. However, this problem seems to be out of its hands/EEZ. 

Lenin Moreno, Ecuador’s commander in chief, has taken as much action as he can. Lenin through his presidency has maintained very diplomatic ties with Xi’s government including several visits to Beijing ad bilateral trade agreements between the two countries. Unfortunately, ever since the last government, Ecuador’s immense debt towards China, makes the country basically voiceless against the Asian Giant. Still, concerning this threat, Lenin Moreno has officially complained to the Chinese government, however, this diplomatic path has not been enough to remove the ships. 

Additionally, the leader has dispatched the Ecuadorian Navy and AirForce to patrol the EEZ and ensure the ships do not cross into Ecuadorian territory. Moreover, a common regional stance with Colombia, Peru, and Chile is being sought through the Permanent Commission of the South Pacific. After an urgent meeting was called upon and adjourned, the Commission deemed Chinese fishing unlawful. However, this determination of unlawfulness stands on shaky legal ground. 

Moreno and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador have also pushed towards the negotiation of a new UN Treaty to protect the wildlife around its EEZ. However, there is little more that can be done. A group of experts assembled by the President has lobbied intensely towards the expansion of the EEZ established by International Maritime Law to 350 nautical miles (from the current 200 miles from the shore). This would close the corridors between the EEZs between the Ecuadorian mainland coast and Galapagos. Here is where the Chinese ships are located. This seems unlikely to succeed. 

From giant tortoises to blue-footed boobies, Galapagos is an environmental gem for the entire plant, not only Ecuador, and Chinese disregard for ecosystems cannot be ignored. Hashtags are not enough. To preserve marine life, which should be a goal for everyone, better and more enforceable laws regarding fishing and protection of endangered species are urgently called for. Cooperation is needed more than ever among the world’s powerful. Ecuador should not be left alone to fight China in Galapago’s protection.

Maria Paula Jijon

Research and Analysis Intern