"China has created the world’s most expansive deep-water fishing fleet over the past 20 years, collecting and operating over 3,000 fishing vessels that move around the world to catch just about every marine species that can turn a profit."
Latin America was once considered one of the most biodiverse geographies on Earth. In fact, it is estimated the Latin America and the Caribbean together hold over 50% of the world’s biodiversity. Yet, this part of the world is in trouble, as everything from overexploitation to climate change is reducing wildlife numbers and populations on land and at sea - and fast.
According to a 2022 report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Latin America has lost over 95% of its mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians over the last 50 years - making it one of the most vulnerable and exposed regions on the planet. Fishing is one of the primary drivers of the decline in regional biodiversity, particularly in the open oceans and coastal ecosystems. Still, fishing also plays a pivotal economic role in the region, providing local populations with employment and food security.
For the most part, however, it’s not the legally operating and sustainably-compliant fisheries creating the setbacks. Instead, the decline in marine and coastal biodiversity mainly falls on the shoulders of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing operations - often operating as part of the notorious Chinese fishing fleet.
What is the Chinese Fishing Fleet, and what is its Impact in Central and South America?
China has created the world’s most expansive deep-water fishing fleet over the past 20 years, collecting and operating over 3,000 fishing vessels that move around the world to catch just about every marine species that can turn a profit. The fleet has caused massive destruction to China’s own marine populations and ecosystems and, for years now, has been ravaging the open and coastal waters of other countries and territories.
Nearing the end of 2022, officials and industry experts estimate that over 80% of the fish species caught in Argentina, Ecuador, and Peru this year have been acquired by Chinese fishing fleets. China’s fleets have operated in the coastal and open waters of South America virtually every day, all day, all year long since 2016 - making them the majority operating fleet around the entire continent. The scale of this continually growing problem is seemingly unconquerable, and maritime authorities across the globe are scrambling to find a solution.
While the Chinese fishing fleet often operates “within legal boundaries,” many of the ships have been directly linked to illegal activity, such as territorial encroachment, human rights violations, and undermining international conservation efforts by catching and keeping endangered marine species. One incident in 2017 saw Ecuadorian officials seize a Chinese fishing vessel, which was found to carry more than 6,500 sharks. Shark fins are highly coveted in China and other ASEAN countries as the main ingredient in shark fin soup.
For the most part, China does not openly operate illegally for the world to see. Instead, they use dark shipping tactics like AIS darkness or AIS spoofing to operate under the radar, working in the shadows when little chance of repercussion exists.
The destructive fleets operations don’t go without contest, though. Maritime authorities, international officials, and the public have employed diplomatic and legal protests, economic sanctions, vessel seizures, and numerous other efforts to curb the impact, yet China hardly waivers.
The Destruction of Ecuador’s World-Renowned Marine Ecosystem: The Galapagos Islands
The day-to-day operations of the Chinese fishing fleets are monumentally destructive, and there’s no other way to put it. However, these fleets are also decimating and destroying invaluably rich ecosystems across our Latin American oceans, particularly Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. In 2020, researchers with the non-profit marine conservation group, Oceana, spotted around 300 Chinese fishing vessels off the Galapagos' coastal waters - just outside Ecuador’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In fact, the ships were so close to the EEZ that satellite imagery showed them indistinguishably on the line of the territory - clearly showing how they deliberately and undeniably operate without concern for the protected marine resources or ecosystems in Ecuador.
While Ecuadorian officials are well-aware of the growing fishing fleets around the Galapagos, they have struggled to deter the fleet’s growth over the past several years. Today, China is responsible for approximately 99% of the fishing around the islands, putting Ecuadorian fishermen and officials in a “now or never” situation regarding the threat.
When asked about the situation, Alberto Andrade, a legally operating fisherman from the Galapagos, said, “Our sea can’t handle this pressure anymore. The presence of so many Chinese vessels has made it harder for local fishermen inside Ecuador’s territorial waters.” He went on to say, “The industrial fleets are razing the stocks, and we are afraid that in the future, there will be no more fishery. Not even the pandemic stopped them.”
How Ecuador is Preparing to Face IUU Fishing Fleets in the Galapagos and the Rest of the Region
In August of 2022, Ecuador appointed a new commander of the Ecuadorian Navy - Rear Admiral John Merlo Leon.
When asked about the biggest challenges ahead of him as the new commander, Admiral Merlo responded appropriately with concerns over China’s destructive fishing fleets, narco-trafficking, and other economic issues that Ecuador currently faces.
When asked about illegal fishing in Ecuadorian waters, Admiral Leon responded, “On the high seas, in areas close to the Ecuadorian insular exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a fleet of foreign-flagged ships that carry out fishing activities is present periodically. This fleet (the Chinese fishing fleet) is made up of some 300 vessels, among them, industrial fishing boats, reefer-type factory ships for processing and storing fish, and tankers for refueling.
When the fleet is up to a distance of about 300 nautical miles from Ecuador’s EEZ, we use various satellite monitoring and referencing systems, such as CLS, Sea Vision, Skylight, and Dark Vessel Detection to obtain information on the vessels position, trajectories, to get satellite images on request, satellite radar information, detect vessels that turn off their automatic identification system (AIS) devices, and analyze suspicious behavior.”
Dark shipping tactics are among the biggest threats to the region's fisheries, as these events go unnoticed and don’t contribute to the catch reports made by China - which many experts expect to be manipulated and underestimated in the first place.
Mapping the Extent of IUU Fishing: Will it Help Deter Illegal Fishing Operations?
Earlier this year, a non-profit organization called Global Fishing Watch put out an interactive map that looked at the extent of dark shipping fleets around the world. The map exposes the geographic locations most plagued by dark shipping for IUU fishing and other nefarious activities and gives some real, data-driven insights into how to mitigate the threats.
The map was constructed with data collected by a European Space Agency satellite, which previously helped identify more than 900 Chinese fishing vessels operating in North Korean waters.
To effectively mitigate some of the impacts made by these Chinese IUU fishing fleets, patterns and strategies will need to be uncovered, and maritime authorities will need to act swiftly to strike the head of the problem.
What’s more is that dark shipping extends far beyond IUU fishing, encompassing everything from human trafficking to sanctions avoidance - leaving the rest of the world no choice but to find appropriate solutions before the impact becomes too big to handle.