On January 14, 2022, Ecuador formalized an expansion of 60,000 square kilometers in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, which will add to the 138,000 km2 of existing protected areas. The new marine reserve was named Hermandad (Brotherhood).
Conservationists believe that this initiative is an important step to protect the marine richness of this region of the Pacific considered one of the most biodiverse in the world, while also stopping the Chinese fishing fleet, which has been accused of plundering fish populations. The marine reserve will connect the waters of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica’s Cocos Island, Panama’s Coiba Island, and Colombia’s Malpelo Island. The creation of this fishing-free marine corridor stems from an agreement among these four countries, announced at the Glasgow summit in November 2021.
“The greatest thing about this is that it is the first multi-country protected area (in the world). It’s a great step,” Maximiliano Bello, an international ocean-policy expert for California-based marine conservation organization Mission Blue who advised the Latin American governments, told The Wall Street Journal.
Chinese fishing fleet
The fishing fleets of many industrialized countries that have depleted fish stocks in their own national waters are seeking to exploit maritime resources in other remote spaces to meet demand, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a London-based think tank that focuses on international affairs, said in a June 2020 report. China, the largest consumer of seafood, is an example of this; its fishing fleet of nearly 17,000 vessels is present in every ocean and has been rated the worst offender of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing worldwide.
The operations of the Chinese fleet near the protected maritime areas of Latin America and the exclusive economic zones of countries of the region have been a concern for several years, but it was not until 2016 that authorities began to issue annual alerts, said the international organization InSight Crime. In 2017, the case of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, which authorities intercepted in the Galapagos Marine Reserve with more than 300 tons of sharks, including endangered hammerhead sharks, set off alarms in Ecuador and the rest of the world, the organization said.
Between July and August 2020, hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels stationed off the Galapagos Islands’ protected area and carried out large-scale collective fishing for more than 73,000 hours, InSight Crime reported. Ecuador’s then-Minister of Defense Oswaldo Jarrín said that half of the Chinese fleet had turned off their tracking systems, a common practice to hide illegal fishing activities.
The number of Chinese-flagged vessels in Latin American Pacific waters has grown 10-fold, from 54 active vessels in 2009 to 557 in 2020, the Associated Press (AP) reported in September 2021. According to AP, the size of the Chinese fleet’s catches increased from 70,000 tons in 2009 to 358,000 in 2020. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Milko Schvartzman, an Argentine conservationist and expert on the activities of the Chinese fleet in Latin America, said he had counted as many as 800 Chinese fishing vessels in waters off the region’s coasts in 2021.
Last year, the Chinese fleet was the focus of control efforts by many Latin American countries, which also sought to implement other measures to curb the plundering of sea resources, such as agreements to increase intelligence sharing, improve satellite tracking, and prevent Chinese fishing vessels from docking at their ports. Expanding the Galapagos Marine Reserve and connecting it to protected areas of neighboring countries was among those efforts.
“I am especially grateful to Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama,” Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso said via Twitter. “Through the creation of #ReservaHermandad, we call on all nations to join this collective effort and preserve the irreplaceable treasures of the ocean.”