By Sid Dobrin
About 600 miles west of the Republic of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, the iconic Galápagos Islands straddle the equator surrounded by one of the most biodiverse regions of ocean in the world. While the Galápagos Islands were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, the 27,000 square miles of ocean surrounding the islands were designated as a marine reserve in 1986; that created the second largest marine reserve in the world, second only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. More than 20% of the species native to Galápagos waters are unique to that region, found nowhere else on the planet.
The Galápagos fall under the sovereignty of the Republic of Ecuador, and despite Ecuador’s efforts to protect the region, industrial fishing fleets historically have harvested the rich waters around Galápagos. However, the 2020 harvest signaled a heightened concern from both Ecuador and international marine advocacy and conservation groups when one of the largest fishing fleets recorded was observed fishing the region.
From July 13, 2020, through Aug. 13, 2020, the international marine conservation and advocacy organization Oceana monitored more than 300 Chinese vessels operating just outside the Ecuadorian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) surrounding the Galápagos archipelago. Using data gathered through a global mapping tool provided by the NGO Global Fishing Watch in cooperation with Google, Oceana researchers began monitoring the massive Chinese fleet when it arrived around the Galápagos Islands.
According to Oceana Illegal Fishing and Transparency Analyst Marla Valentine, it is not unusual for Chinese vessels to fish the waters around the Galápagos Islands each year. However, what makes this year’s observations worrisome was the extensive size of the fleet. The sheer numbers of vessels in the region, Valentine explains, was an “intense event for us.” According to Valentine, the U.S. and EU distant water fleets (DWF) are each only approximately 300 vessels. So, for a single nation like China to have a flotilla larger than the entire U.S. fleet, then have it deployed to one region, signaled concern for Oceana. Recent research published by the London-based research organization Overseas Development Institute (ODI) estimates the Chinese DWF at over 3,000 vessels. Other estimates published by media sites like Science X and phys.org claim the Chinese DWF may be as large as 17,000 vessels.
Oceana researchers observed vessels migrating to the Galápagos Islands from all around the Pacific, forming the massive fleet of more than 300. According to Valentine, her team worked to “assess the intensity of the fishing that was taking place in the region and where this fleet was coming from and going to.”
“We knew that they were there fishing,” Valentine says, “and using Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), we were really able to catalog and categorize what these vessels were doing.” The Oceana observers were able to identify that the boats were primarily “squid jigging,” a form of night fishing that uses massive, bright lights similar to stadium lights to attract the squid for harvest.
The global squid market is rapidly increasing as more populations recognize the nutritional value of the cephalopods. While Spain leads the world in squid import, it is China — followed by Thailand — that leads the world in squid export, even though Beijing requires its DWF to return 65% of its catch to Chinese markets. The research firm Research and Markets estimates that given the growing demand for squid, the global squid market will be valued at $11.6 billion by 2025. This increasing demand fuels industrial fishing vessels like the Chinese fleet to maximize their squid fishing efforts around the world. China stands as the global leader in seafood exportation and accounts for more than a third of all seafood consumed. To provide seafood at this level of demand and because Chinese fishermen have overharvested and depleted local waters, the Chinese fleets have been harvesting globally more aggressively over the past few years.
Oceana’s observations and research revealed that in the one month between July 13 and Aug. 13, the Chinese fleet logged more than 73,000 hours of harvest from Galápagos waters, a tally that accounts for 99% of the total fishing that took place in the area by all monitored vessels, an intensive harvesting event that Valentine characterizes as “shocking.”
Squid, of course, are also a primary forage for many of the Galápagos’ native and migratory species. Oceana and other conservation groups have expressed concern regarding the ecological and environmental impact of such concentrated extraction on other marine organisms.
According to Valentine, Oceana was also concerned that vessels in the Chinese fleet were switching off their AIS tracking devices, an activity known as “going dark,” in order to avoid tracking and observation. During the month in question, Oceana was able to document 43 instances of vessels in the fleet turning off their AIS systems to avoid detection. When vessels go dark, Valentine explains, there is no way to know where the vessels are, which raises suspicion that some vessels were entering Ecuador’s EEZ surrounding the Galápagos islands to fish or participating in other illegal fishing practices.
Part of the concern with a fleet as large as the Chinese fleet that gathered outside of Galápagos, is the potential for the boats to participate in trans-shipping practices. Trans-shipping refers to one vessel — such as a squid fishing boat — unloading its cargo to a larger container ship — like a refrigerator ship, referred to as a “refer boat” — allowing the fishing vessel to return to fish and refill empty holds. Trans-shipping practices have been noted by many who monitor global fishing practices as contributing to illegal, unreported and undocumented (IUU) fishing by obscuring the origins and sizes of catches.
Following the month that Oceana observed the Chinese fleet around the Galápagos, many of the vessels began migrating south to fish the waters adjacent to Peru and Chile’s EEZ, raising caution from those nations as well. In November 2020, Ecuador, Columbia, Peru and Chile issued a joint statement expressing concern over the fleet’s growth over the past four years, citing a 142% increase in the numbers of boats between 2014 and 2019 (from 261 vessels to 631). The statement voiced deep concern over the possibility of the fleet engaging in IUU practices. Tellingly, Valentine explains that “a statement is one thing, but action upon those statements is another. If these countries gather together and use their combined resources to monitor, track and assess this fleet, and enforce their national boundaries and EEZs, then, yes, that could have a great impact.” She explains that one of the big issues in combating IUU fishing is a lack of transparency and enforcement. “If this statement turns into an action,” Valentine says, “then I think we could see a real impact.”
Global concern regarding the expanding range and numbers of vessels in the Chinese DWF has raised concerns, not just about the Galápagos Islands but also about waters globally as the collaborative concerns raised by Ecuador, Columbia, Peru and Chile demonstrate. However, it is not just concern over Chinese incursions into the South Pacific that have drawn observers’ attention.
Disputes between China, North Korea, Russia and Japan over squid fishing in the Sea of Japan — also known as the East Sea — have brought China’s growing DWF and IUU practices to the attention of researchers and global fisheries watchdogs, as well as into a greater public view by international media. Reputed as some of the most inefficiently monitored waters in the world, the Sea of Japan has a long history of fishing disputes among nations of the region. Because of the poor monitoring in the area, Chinese and other fleets routinely go dark when fishing there. In 2019, researchers counted as many as 800 Chinese vessels fishing in the Sea of Japan, and many of those boats were identified as illegally fishing in North Korean territorial waters.
In 2017, the United Nations imposed sanctions against Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that prohibits international fleets from fishing in their territorial waters to prevent North Korea from selling harvest rights in their waters, an important economic resource for North Korea. As such, Chinese vessels fishing the North Korean waters were in direct violation of the sanctions, and their fishing identified as IUU. Researchers from Global Fishing Watch described the Chinese incursions into North Korean waters at the time as the largest known case of IUU by a single industrial fleet.
In addition to concerns about violations of international regulations, researchers also have serious concerns about the ecological and environmental impact of the massive Chinese DWF squid harvest. Research has shown that since the Chinese DWF expanded its operations into North Korean waters, the once abounding squid populations of the region have been depleted by as much as 70%.
Because the Chinese DWF uses massive light arrays to attract squid to the fishing vessels, researchers have begun using satellite imagery to identify vessels that are squid fishing, even when the vessels have disabled their AIS. The bright squid lights are clearly visible to satellite imaging technologies.
A report published by The Stimson Center in 2019 identifies that five countries are responsible for 90% of the world’s long-distance fishing fleets. China leads the world in DWF fishing, and together with Taiwan, accounts for 60% of global DWF fishing. Japan, South Korea, and Spain follow with about 10% each. While Japan and Spain have traditionally maintained large DWF fleets, China’s move into DWF fishing has increased since the 1990s. Before the mid-90s, The Stimson Center shows, Russia dominated DWF fishing but curbed their operations. The Stimson Center report also shows that DWF fleets tend to operate in waters where there is limited governance and enforcement, like the Sea of Japan. China continues to expand DWF operations from the Pacific into East and West African waters.
While IUU and environmental concerns are paramount to authorities monitoring the growing Chinese DWF actions, there is also another element of concern. Over the past five years, more than 500 boats containing the decomposed bodies of North Korean fishermen have washed up on Japanese shores. Authorities speculate that these fishermen had to venture farther from North Korean waters to locate squid and fish since their usual fishing grounds have been depleted by the Chinese DWF. Because the smaller North Korean boats were not designed or supplied for long-range fishing, many of the North Korean “ghost boats” end up drifting at sea for months before washing ashore in Japan.
Overall, the Chinese DWF fleet overshadows all other fleets in terms of size and IUU activities. One report identifies the Chinese DWF as accounting for 40% of all illegal incursions into other nations’ EEZ. Researchers and monitors like those at Oceana will continue to observe China’s role in DWF and IUU activities, but until the international community demands greater transparency in China’s DWF fishing operations and enforces international regulations regarding territorial waters and harvest rights, China appears to be operating as a rogue agent across global waters.
You can access the Global Fishing Watch mapping tools at GlobalFishingWatch.org.