Ecuador has sounded the alarm after its navy discovered a huge fishing fleet of mostly Chinese-flagged vessels about 322km from the Galapagos Islands, the archipelago which inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
About 260 ships were in international waters just outside a 303km exclusive economic zone around the island, but their presence had already raised the prospect of serious damage to the delicate marine ecosystem, former Ecuadoran minister of the environment Yolanda Kakabadse said.
“This fleet’s size and aggressiveness against marine species is a big threat to the balance of species in the Galapagos,” she said.
Kakabadse and former Quito mayor Roque Sevilla on Monday were put in charge of designing a “protection strategy” for the islands, which lie 906km west of the South American mainland.
Chinese fishing vessels come every year to the seas around the Galapagos, which were declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978, but this year’s fleet is one of the largest seen in the past few years.
Sevilla said that diplomatic efforts would be made to request the withdrawal of the Chinese fleet.
“Unchecked Chinese fishing just on the edge of the protected zone is ruining Ecuador’s efforts to protect marine life in the Galapagos,” he said.
The team would also seek to enforce international agreements that protect migratory species, he added.
The Galapagos Marine Reserve has one of the world’s greatest concentrations of shark species, including endangered whale and hammerhead varieties.
Kakabadse said efforts would also be made to extend the exclusive economic zone to a 563km circumference around the islands, which would join up with the Ecuadoran mainland’s economic zone, closing off a corridor of international waters in between the two where the Chinese fleet was located.
Ecuador is also trying to establish a corridor of marine reserves between Pacific-facing neighbors Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, which would seal off important areas of marine diversity, Kakabadse said.
Ecuadoran President Lenin Moreno described the archipelago as “one of the richest fishing areas and a seedbed of life for the entire planet,” in a message on Twitter over the weekend.
The Galapagos are renowned for their unique plants and wildlife.
UNESCO describes the archipelago as a “living museum and a showcase for evolution.”
The Ecuadoran Navy has been monitoring the fishing fleet since it was spotted with satellite imaging last week, Minister of National Defense Oswaldo Jarrin said.
The navy has stepped up patrols in the area to ensure the Chinese boats do not enter the reserve, officials said.
“We are on alert, [conducting] surveillance, patrolling to avoid an incident such as what happened in 2017,” Jarrin said, referring to the capture by the navy within reserve of a Chinese vessel, the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999.
That ship was part of an even larger fleet than the one spotted this year, and was found to be carrying 300 tonnes of marine wildlife, mostly sharks.
“We were appalled to discover that a massive Chinese industrial fishing fleet is currently off the Galapagos Islands,” said John Hourston, a spokesman for the Blue Planet Society, a non-governmental organization that campaigns against overfishing.
Additional reporting by staff writer
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