Ecuador shark seizure exposes illegal fishing network

Chinese ship stopped in Galapagos waters highlights gross failure of marine law
<p>(image: <a href="">Rod Waddington</a>)</p>

(image: Rod Waddington)

Authorities in Ecuador have detained a Chinese fishing boat close to the Galapagos Islands, carrying a cargo filled with thousands of dead sharks, including endangered species, such as hammerheads and protected tuna.

The Fu Yuan Leng 999 was detained by the Ecuadorian Navy on Sunday 20 in the Galapagos archipelago marine reserve carrying 300 tonnes of dead fish, mainly sharks.

Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno said on Monday that he would not allow the violation of the country’s maritime sovereignty by “any foreign fishing fleet”, referring to two hundred Chinese-flagged vessels currently operating within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Galapagos Islands.

The Galapagos islands is a UNESCO world heritage site because of its rich marine biodiversity. In 2007, it was put on the UN’s list of Sites in Danger, because of threats posed by tourism and overfishing but was subsequently removed in response to efforts by the Ecuadorian authorities to address these problems.

Tarsicio Granizo, Ecuador’s environment minister, said that an order to detain the crew on the island of San Cristobal had been issued. The crew of 20 face up to three years in prison for trafficking protected animals.

While it is not certain that the whole catch came from the marine reserve, the presence of young and baby sharks, indicates that they could have been caught inside the reserve. The sheer number of sharks found confirms that they were not caught accidentally as by-catch.

Walter Bustos, the director of the Galapagos National Park, told Ecuadorian newspaper El Universo that the boat was the largest vessel captured inside the marine reserve. In 2015 Ecuadorian police seized about 200,000 shark fins that were set to be exported to Asia.

State complicity

The seizure has made news globally and raised questions about the impunity of fishing fleets operating at the edge of Ecuador’s Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ (a sea zone prescribed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea over which a state has special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources), particularly those in the Galapagos ecosystem.

Fy Yuan Leng 999 is one of hundreds of international ships that trawl the waters surrounding Ecuador, Chile and Peru, that impact international marine resources, local ecosystems and economies. China is thought to have the biggest fleet in this zone.

“Unfortunately, Chinese vessels illegally entering the waters of developing countries to harvest their resources are often authorised by some states to legally fish or ‘whiten’ their catch,” says Milko Schvartzman, a marine conservation specialist who worked as international campaigns coordinator for Greenpeace for 16 years.

Ecuador is a member of the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Organisation (SPRFMO), a multilateral body composed of 15 members in charge of managing fishing activities for certain species in the water of the South Pacific. It has the power to authorise which vessels can access the water.

“Many of the vessels authorised to operate in the South Pacific by this origination are vessels that, despite not complying with minimum sanitary requirements, safety standards and environmental sustainability. Yet the SPRFMO continues to authorise them to deplete the resources that are common to all mankind,” says Schvartzman.

Lu Huan Yuan Yu 106 also fishes in the South Atlantic, on the edge of the Argentine EEZ, along with a fleet of more than 400 IUU vessels (Illegal, Unreported, Unreported), many of which have authorisation from SPRFMO.

The Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 was not fishing inside the Galapagos, nor Ecuadorian waters, ​but rather ​was in transit through the Galapagos waters. The vessel caught ​was​​ not a fishing vessel​ but​ a ‘reefer’​, ​​a ​frozen cargo vessel​ used as a depot by other fishing vessels to store or transport catch​. The catch ha​d​ been loaded through transhipment​, a practice whereby both legally and illegally caught fish are transferred to stationary vessels for storage, making it impossible to trace their true source.

The seizure of the boat is the latest in a spate of Chinese-flagged boat detentions. Chinese fishing vessel Hua Li 8 was found fishing illegally in Argentine Sea. Its detention led to the involvement of Argentinean warships and helicopters, and a Uruguayan warship and plane. It was later captured in Indonesia, on a request from international police organisation Interpol. The fugitive Hua Li 8 continues to fish ‘legally’ authorised by the SPRMFO, according to Schvartzman.

Regrettably, the SPRMFO has no record as to the record of vessels it authorises to fish on the high seas, a region that is a common good of all mankind.

Transhipment on the high seas not only conceals harmful environmental activity but is associated with human trafficking, and creating distortions in the open market making fair competition impossible.

Where was the Navy?

According to reports, the ship had been in Ecuador’s territorial waters since July 2017. The seizure has raised concerns over Ecuador’s ability to police its marine territory.

Ecuador’s Navy has suffered from underinvestment since the appointment of Rafael Correa in 2007, under whose leadership the naval budget has been cut and resources diverted to land patrols. Cesar Cedano, PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote on

“The great naval challenge of Ecuador is to control a maritime area five times larger than its [land] territory. To accomplish this task, it was vital to make the right purchases, invest in training, stop using naval personnel for subsidiary missions – that is, non-military purposes – and design a good budget. But the opposite has happened: There has been ineptitude to the point that the modernisations and investments that have been made have been expended.”

Some of the vessels in the naval fleet are over 30 years old and in needed of upgrading. Furthermore, Ecuador’s maritime sovereignty over natural resources does not extend to the transit of ships, especially to control and monitor in a decentralised way the illegal activity of small groups of vessels.

Tensions rising

In the aftermath of the seizure, President Moreno warned that he will strengthen the capacity of his naval force to prevent the incursion of Chinese vessels into the Ecuadorian maritime space.

“We are not going to allow them to violate our maritime sovereignty. I have arranged for the Chancellor to carry out all legal and diplomatic efforts so that neither this nor any other fishing fleet may be against our wealth,” he said.

In previous year, Ecuador’s own national fishing fleet has been involved in several cases of illegal shark finning, shark fins exports, and shark capture inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve, at the Ecuador Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ), or high seas; for example in the last 3 years, 18 Ecuadorian vessels have being caught because of illegal fishing.

President Moreno reiterated that this fishery “affects migratory species” and “is a crime, not only against the Galapagos ecosystem, but against the planet.”