Ecuador was on alert earlier this week as a flotilla of 260 mostly Chinese fishing vessels– what some called a “floating city”– was sighted near the Galapagos archipelago, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose acquatic species such as manta rays and sharks have been endangered by commercial fishing.
The Galapagos Islands, spread over almost 60,000 sq km, are a part of Ecuador, and are located in the Pacific Ocean around 1,000 km away from the South American continent. Every year, Ecuador faces the challenge of protecting its natural habitat from Chinese vessels.
Chinese fishing around Galapagos
According to the Madrid-based El País, the flotilla, which also consisted of some Liberia and Panama-flagged vessels, was detected in an international water corridor situated between two areas of Ecuadorian jurisdiction– 200 miles away from both the Galapagos Islands and mainland Ecuador.
Ecuador’s Defence Minister said the situation is repeated every year, when ships reach the outer limit of the archipelago, outside the country’s exclusive zone. Last year, 245 Chinese fishing vessels were sighted in the area where Ecuador’s writ does not extend.
In 2017, when a Chinese ship did enter Ecuador’s waters, its authorities seized it and discovered 300 tonnes of wildlife on board, mostly the critically endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks – a delicacy in China. As per an Economist report, two-thirds of hammerhead shark fins found in Hong Kong markets come from the Galapagos area.
According to the Guayaquil-based El Universo, Chinese ships frequent Ecuador’s waters this time of the year when the cold Humboldt Current brings in nutrients that lead to a high congregation of marine species.
Chinese vessels have also run into trouble with other countries in the region. In 2016, Argentina’s coast guard chased and sank a vessel that it claimed had been illegally fishing in the South Atlantic.
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While Ecuador’s navy announced that it had sighted the flotilla in international waters on July 16, it was only during this week that the matter escalated to a diplomatic level, when Ecuador officially expressed its “discomfort” to China.
President Lenin Moreno has said that Ecuador will discuss the “threat” with Peru, Chile, Colombia, and Panama – coastal countries of the region that have also been affected in the past.
The United States, which is already opposing China on multiple fronts, expressed its support for Ecuador. On July 29, the US National Security Council tweeted, “The United States stands with President @Lenin and our friends and partners in #Ecuador against any aggression directed toward their economic and environmental sovereignty.”
— NSC (@WHNSC) July 29, 2020
China on its part has maintained that it is a “responsible fishing nation” having a “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal fishing.
The Galapagos Islands
Renowned worldwide for its unique species, the islands host a wide array of aquatic wildlife, including marine iguanas, fur seals, and waved albatrosses. The giant tortoises found here – ‘Galápagos’ in old Spanish– give the islands its name.
Ecuador made a part of the Galapagos a wildlife sanctuary in 1935, and the sanctuary became the Galapagos National Park in 1959. In 1978, the islands became UNESCO’s first World Heritage Site.
It was here that the British naturalist Charles Darwin made key observations in 1835 that shaped his theory of evolution. Darwin described the islands as a “world in itself”.
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According to an AP report, the warming of oceans due to climate change is expected to further increase fishing pressure around the islands, which would offer a better catch than other regions.