The Ecuadorian government is using Canadian technology to monitor the Chinese fleet’s illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing around theGalápagos Islands. In early June, the government detected some 180 Chinese vessels near the islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), fishing for giant squid and threatening the biodiversity and economy of countries of the region.
The Ecuadorian Navy carries out ongoingpatrols to prevent the vessels from fishing in the protected zone. “As long as these vessels are far from the insular EEZ, more than 100 miles away, we monitor them by satellite,” Ecuadorian Navy Rear Admiral John Merlo León, commander of Naval Operations, told Ecuadorian television network Teleamazonas.
Space technology company MDA, based in Brampton, Ontario, has been providing satellite tracking, remote sensing, and the ability to synthesize large amounts of data to the Ecuadorian Navy, Canada’s public broadcaster CBC reported. With tens of thousands of industrial fishing vessels operating in the world’s oceans, identifying illicit operators is like looking for a “needle in a haystack,” Mark Carmichael, a senior MDA executive, told CBC. In mid-September 2021, Ecuador and Canada signed a cooperation agreement for the use of satellites to detect and track in real time“dark ships,” whose location transponders are turned off.
Ecuadorian authorities also requested the assistance of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). Other organizations, including Global Fishing Watch, a website launched with the backing of Google that tracks commercial fishing activities, offer support to the Ecuadorian government by interpreting vessel movements, including fishing operations in prohibited areas, CBC reported.
“It seems very positive to me that Ecuador has this type of agreement with companies or countries that collaborate on technological systems to detect these fleets, as is the case with Canada,” Milko Schvartzman, an Argentine marine conservation expert and member of the nongovernmental organization Círculo de Políticas Ambientales, which seeks to strengthen the environmental policy agenda and promote the protection of ecosystems, told Diálogo. “Countries need to use different systems with different providers and to have their own capabilities to analyze, track, and monitor these fleets.”
The Chinese fishing fleet illegal fishing activities around the Galápagos Islands is affecting the region in several ways, starting with its environmental impact. “This fleet is not regulated, does not report to any authorities, and has no observers on board. So, no one knows exactly how much they fish, since the information is only provided by the captain, without any monitoring,” Schvartzman said.
Nor is it fully known where the vessels fish, the size of the specimens caught, and the discards. “As such, there is a very severe impact on the species [in this case, the giant squid] and on the entire marine ecosystem,” the expert said. The ocean contamination level is also unknown. By not operating under any environmental regulation, the Chinese fishing fleet generates tons of waste of all kinds daily, Schvartzman added.
“There is also an economic impact on South American coastal communities, as the Chinese fleet is subsidized by its flag state and competes in the markets, catching the same species that artisanal vessels from Peru and Ecuador catch,” he said. “And there is an impact on human rights, as the crews of this Chinese fleet are mostly Indonesians, Filipinos, or from African countries who work in slave-like conditions.”
Experts say a greater mobilization of the international community is needed to prevent overfishing. “We have to work on a global agreement to protect the biodiversity of international waters,” Alexander Hearn, professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences at San Francisco de Quito University in Ecuador, told Teleamazonas. In mid-June the World Trade Organization reached a historic agreement to end harmful fisheries subsidies. The agreement, a step toward meeting sustainable development goals, creates a global framework curbing subsidies for IUU fishing.
Schvartzman proposes several solutions to the problem. Among those “that every vessel has observers on board and comply with minimum international standards and norms for working conditions and safety on board, something that is not happening today,” Schvartzman said.
There should also be regulation for transshipment on the high seas, which is at present carried out furtively, the expert said. He also says that vessels should have a single name and a single registration. “Today the Chinese fleet uses twin ships, with the same names and the same license numbers to hide their activities,” he said.
“It should also be mandatory for these vessels to always have global positioning systems on. As we know, the Chinese fleet turns them off all the time,” Schvartzman concluded.