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Fish out of Water Lead to Water out of Fish? A Chinese Flotilla Looms over the Galapagos Islands

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

August 17, 2020

When plastic bottles with Chinese lettering appeared on the shores of the inhabited Galapagos Islands in mid-July of 2020, residents surmised that fishing boats from China must be in the area, as they often are annually.


It turned out that an enormous armada of up to 300 fishing vessels had sailed right up to the perimeter of the Ecuadorian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which encloses the Galapagos Marine Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site governed by Ecuador.

Fishing just outside the reserve is not illegal--the boats were (and still are) in international waters. However, observers noted the unusually large number of boats and documented the use of longlining (using fishing lines up to 100km [60+ miles] long with thousands of baited hooks) that can be used to catch sharks and tuna within the protected area. Many were also catching squid which, while legal, is an essential staple for resident marine life. Some fishermen, however, turned off their identification or reported false locations in New Zealand, which would be illegal according to international maritime regulations.

Oswaldo Jarrin, Ecuador's Minister of Defense, expressed concern that the Chinese ships were seeking to enter the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), endangering the marine sanctuary. For the past three years, Chinese fishing vessels have appeared in the same area and some have been caught shark fishing illegally. After finding 6,000 frozen sharks and 300 tons of fish illegally caught in the reserve, Ecuador imprisoned twenty fishermen for four years. The operators of their vessel, the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, caught holding 300 tons of illegally-obtained fish, were fined $5.9 million.

On August 2nd, U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo expressed U.S. support for Ecuador's efforts to safeguard the Galapagos Reserve and called China out for "illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing." The Chinese embassy in Quito rejected the U.S. criticism as unwarranted, claiming that China is a "responsible fishing country" that has "zero tolerance" for illegal fishing.

Former Ecuadorian Environment Minister Yolanda Kakabadse and Mayor of Quito Roque Sevilla were tasked with devising a strategy to protect the marine life of the Galapagos Islands. Their plan involves working with other countries with a Pacific seacoast (Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama) to create a marine reserve corridor that would effectively bar industrial fishing. After strong protests against the actions of the Chinese fishing fleet, due to their potential harm to the fragile ecosystem, the Ecuadorian government announced that China agreed to supervision of the vessels in the area and bilateral talks.

Where's the Risk?

Resource Risks to China

Seafood consumption is rising in China and the Chinese government is encouraging the trend because it is healthy and requires fewer resources--compared to raising livestock, fish farming requires much less grain, though it may contribute to the pollution of coastal waters. China's Ministry of Agriculture projects a doubling of seafood consumption in urban areas, where the more diet-conscious and higher-income middle class resides, from 31.5 lbs (14.3 kg)/person in 2015 to 66 lbs (30 kg) in 2027 and an average of 55 lbs (25 kg) per person overall, including rural areas where much less fish is consumed. The swine flu outbreak of 2019 also boosted seafood consumption due to higher pork prices and concerns about its safety. China's seafood consumption in 2018 was 65 million tons, accounting for 45% of the global total.

Demand for seafood in China is increasing at a time when its own fishing stocks are being depleted due to overfishing and the pollution of Chinese coastal waters. China's wild catch declined by 5% in 2018 and stricter environmental regulations are expected to restrain its growth. As domestic consumption of seafood is rising, China has also become a leading exporter of fish and fish feed. As a result, China is overfishing in its own waters, especially "trash fish", fish too small for consumption but used for fish feed in farming operations. "Trash fish" make up nearly one-third of China's annual catch, a practice that further depletes fish stocks.

While China is the world's largest producer of seafood, its own imports increased by 30% in 2019 in volume and value. Russia is the leading source of China's seafood imports. Seafood imports from Ecuador surged 321% in 2019, ranking second.

Global Resource Risks

As a part of its efforts to fish more sustainably, the Chinese government announced that it would reduce the size of its distant fishing fleet. While experts agree that China's fleet is considerably larger than that of the U.S. and other countries, the number of Chinese vessels is disputed. While most estimates state that there are approximately 3,000 Chinese distant fishing vessels, a 2020 study by the Overseas Development Institute contended that there may be as many as 17,000 if vessels with any Chinese interest are included, such as those sailing under the flags of other countries.

The Chinese government has pledged publicly to cap its distant fishing fleet at 3,000 (which would still be more than 100 times the size of the US fleet), but observers are skeptical about this commitment due to national and government subsidies to distant fishing operations. A 2018 study found that more than half of distant fishing would be unprofitable without such subsidies. The WTO is seeking to reign in these subsidies and the U.S. made a formal request to the WTO for China to clarify its subsidies.

The large number of Chinese vessels on the perimeter of the Ecuadorian EEZ reflects the overall size of the fleet. While the Chinese government has claimed that its distant fishing vessels are independently operated, it is also true that Chinese fishing vessels have been used in the South China Sea and the East China Sea to contest sovereignty. Chinese officials encourage fishing boats to go to these areas and fly the Chinese flag. The Belt and Road Initiative also encourages distant fishing, especially in Africa, where bilateral agreements have allowed access to the EEZs of particular countries in exchange for infrastructure investments. Such deals lack transparency and lead to corruption and illegal fishing, as well as opposition from local communities.

The actions of China's distant fishing vessels raise questions about the country's future role in fishing governance. Xi Jinping claims China seeks create a community of common destiny to address global commons issues. However, China's inability or unwillingness to effectively regulate its distant fishing fleet creates risks for other countries. China issued new rules in April 2020 to regulate the fishing industry, including a voluntary ban on squid fishing in the eastern Pacific from September through November. However, it remains to be seen whether these rules will be enforced and lead to China's participation in the 2016 Port-State Measures Agreement (PMSA), a binding commitment to ending illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing.

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