The Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) covers about 40,000 square nautical miles, and it was established in 1998 to protect the remarkable biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. Last month, Ecuadorian authorities in Guayaquil spotted a fleet of 260 Chinese boats fishing in the area around the GMR. This action was not contrary to international law, as the boats were sailing in international waters. Yet they were fishing in a zone where endangered migrating species transit to and from the reserve, such as silky shark, whale sharks, and hammerhead sharks.

While some Chinese fishing vessels have taken the trip to the area once each year since 1978, the size of the fleet this year was unprecedented. The consumption of seafood in China has increased rapidly over recent years, which may explain why more Chinese ships are needed to meet the demand.

A new report on distant-water fishing (DWF) published last month by the Overseas Development Institute found that China’s DWF fleet is five to eight times larger than previously estimated, with 16,996 vessels, most of which are trawlers. The same report concludes that at least 183 vessels in that fleet are suspected of involvement in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, or IUU fishing.

The presence of such a large fishing fleet around a marine protected area comes as a blow at a time when multiple countries (many of them small to extremely small) are committed to preserving biodiversity.

In 2019, China ranked as the country most likely to contribute to IUU fishing, out of 152 countries. The index measured countries on 40 indicators, with China scoring poorly on many of them, both as a flag state (scoring poorly on indicators relating to IUU fishing), and as a port state (with too little monitoring in China’s ports also leading to IUU-fishing issues).

Ecuadorian scientists have expressed concern over the opacity surrounding the quantity and type of species fished. “We don’t know what these fishing fleets are really up to, and we don’t know how much they fish,” one biologist said.

Please click here to read the full “Chinese trawlers and the Galapagos: The protection challenge” article published at The Maritime Executive, written by Griffith Asia Institute PhD Candidate, Melodie Ruwet.