For several weeks, a fleet of more than 300 boats, most of them under the Chinese flag, has been fishing a short distance from the southern maritime boundary of the Galapagos Islands. Through satellite and airborne monitoring, the Ecuadoran Navy has determined that the fleet consists of fishing boats, supply vessels and freighters. However, the Ecuadoran maritime authority cannot act as long as the fleet does not enter the EEZ or the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR), a 51,000-square-mile protected area.
In 1998, the Ecuadoran government established this reserve to protect the extraordinary biological diversity of the archipelago, a living laboratory of evolution. Located 600 miles from the coasts of Ecuador, the islands lie at the confluence of various marine currents that generate a mixture of cold and warm waters, facilitating the arrival of species from different areas of the Pacific Ocean. Some of these species are unique to the archipelago, such as the Galapagos penguin and the famous marine iguana.
Although industrial fishing is prohibited within the reserve, highly migratory species, such as sea turtles, manta rays and various sharks, do not recognize human-made borders. Once out of the protected area’s boundaries, these species can be easily caught, especially with the use of gigantic long lines and other nonselective fishing methods.
Therefore, the presence of such a large and poorly regulated fishing fleet constitutes a serious threat to the effective conservation of these species. For example, only five percent of Chinese-flagged long-line vessels have observers on board, making it difficult to assess their impact on threatened species. In addition, vessels frequently turn off their satellite monitoring devices to enter EEZs illegally.
While scientists and environmental organizations around the world have warned of the danger that overfishing poses to the integrity of one of the most important marine reserves on the planet, this threat is not new. In August 2017, the Chinese-flagged freighter Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 was intercepted by Ecuadoran authorities while crossing through the Galapagos Marine Reserve.
On board, authorities discovered hundreds of tons of illegally caught fish, including more than 7,200 sharks, many of them endangered species.
In response, the justice system prosecuted and sentenced the captain and several crew members of the Fu Yuan Lu Leng 999 to three years in prison for the crime of possession and transportation of wildlife, a first in Ecuadoran criminal law. The judgment also included the payment of $6.1 million for damages caused to nature, as well as the confiscation of the ship.
Today, effective control of the Galapagos Marine Reserve requires permanent state investment in satellite monitoring systems and the operation of coast guards and speedboats for the timely arrest of offending vessels. But additional resources are needed for the development of a legal framework that includes the participation of experts specialized in identifying threatened species, and professional translators to guarantee the right to defense of those accused of fishing illegally, typically foreigners.
The current situation is aggravated by government budget cuts related to a difficult economic situation, precipitated by the fall in the price of oil — Ecuador’s main export product — and the covid-19 pandemic, resulting in a decrease in surveillance activities as most of the country’s human and financial resources are focused on fighting the health emergency.
This is why the Ecuadoran government needs technical and financial assistance from the international community to strengthen the protection of the marine reserve and expand or create new marine protected areas that facilitate the conservation of highly migratory species. Regional cooperation is also necessary to improve the application of fisheries' management measures and avoid the capture of threatened species through coordinated actions.
Lastly, it is crucial for the international community to enact the Global Ocean Treaty, a legally binding agreement that has been under negotiation, which guarantees the conservation of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
The imminent threat to our Ecuadoran natural treasure, of singular importance to understanding evolutionary processes, represents an opportunity to rethink the relationship between human beings and the oceans. That is why we must keep our eyes on Galapagos and its future.