Evolution of the Fleet

Evolution of the Fleet

A Closer Look at the Chinese Fishing Vessels Off the Galapagos

Dr. Tabitha Grace Mallory and Dr. Ian Ralby | Photos by Reuters

A flurry of news stories in late July 2020 reported the discovery of a massive fleet of Chinese fishing vessels in the waters off Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, which fluctuated to over 350 before the fleet finally left by mid-October to fish farther south. Yet the presence of the Chinese distant-water fishing (DWF) fleet in the area has been expanding for several years. Concerns over the fleet’s illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing have also grown, spurred by the August 2017 seizure of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, a Chinese-flagged refrigerated vessel found in the Galapagos with roughly 3,000 tons of rare, nearly extinct or endangered species onboard, including 600 sharks.

Using data and insight from Windward, a predictive maritime intelligence platform, our analysis examines how this fishing phenomenon has evolved over time and who is behind this increasingly intensive fishing effort. This fishing activity is the outcome of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) global fisheries strategy, including the generous subsidies provided to the industry. We examine the extent to which the PRC may be engaging in IUU fishing, arguing that although the Chinese government has moved to curtail IUU fishing activities, several challenges remain. While the fleet appears to largely be operating legally, some behavior indicates exceptions. Furthermore, despite any seemingly technical compliance with existing laws and regulations, some Chinese fishing activity falls into the unreported and unregulated categories and deserves careful consideration in terms of the sustainability of such operations.


Windward data helps to visualize the Chinese fleet’s activity over time, illustrating that the presence of Chinese fishing vessels in the waters around the Galapagos’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) has been increasing for several years. In 2015, there was virtually no Chinese fishing activity in the Galapagos and the waters outside the archipelago’s EEZ. Beginning in 2016, however, that changed dramatically. In August 2016, for example, 191 Chinese-flagged vessels fished in the wider Galapagos area — a stark contrast to the one Chinese vessel that was detected in that area the same month in 2015. The numbers have increased since then, fluctuating with the fishing seasons. Over the course of 2017, three months saw more than 200 vessels fishing in the area, peaking at 263 in July. In 2018, there were four consecutive months — May through August — with over 200 Chinese vessels fishing in the area, and December had 193. The peak that year was 286 in June. In 2019, there were five months with over 200 vessels, while June and July had 197 and 130, respectively. The peak in 2019 was September, with 298 (Figure 1).

The phenomenon has now become more extreme, with four months in 2020 having over 200 vessels, including two with over 300. In July 2020, there were 342 Chinese vessels fishing in the area, in August there were 344 and in September there were 295.

To better understand this huge increase in activity, it is important to understand the policies driving the Chinese fishing industry.


Because of Windward’s data aggregation capabilities, it is possible to examine some of the details behind this massive fleet. Between July and August 2020, 364 Chinese vessels in the area transmitted on an automated information system (AIS). Vessels over 300 gross tons operating internationally must, under the Safety of Life at Sea Convention, be fitted with AIS and keep it turned on. Therefore, there may have been more than 364 vessels because some may have been present but “dark” and thus undetectable through AIS. Examining those 364 reveals valuable insights into their ownership and provinces of origin. Notwithstanding a few vessels whose ownership is unknown, 55 companies own the fleet on paper, though several have identical addresses, indicating that there may be fewer than 55 beneficial owners.

The vessels off the Galapagos are part of China’s DWF fleet, which operates in areas beyond national jurisdiction — or the “high seas” as defined under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — and in the EEZs of host countries on the basis of bilateral fisheries access agreements. The PRC officially reported 2,701 DWF vessels in 2019 and 159 DWF enterprises in 2017.

The fleet around the Galapagos is the result of distinct shifts in Chinese fisheries policy. From the launch of China’s DWF industry in 1985 until the mid-2010s, the PRC’s strategy was to expand the fleet and increase catch. Yet, in the PRC’s 13th fisheries five-year plan — the most recent — the strategy shifted from a focus on expansion to one of upgrading and consolidating the industry. The PRC aims to have more control over the entire supply chain, from point of harvest, transport and landing, to processing and distribution and, ultimately, to retail markets. Concurrent with this shift, as the PRC upgrades its vessel technology to better process and store catch, it aims to send more of its DWF catch for sale on China’s domestic market. The PRC has been building domestic port infrastructure for this seafood distribution. In 2018, it sent 65% of its catch home, an increase from 49% in 2009.

Simultaneously, the PRC has been moving away from reliance on catch from other EEZs toward high seas fishing because host countries have become more concerned about unsustainable fishing by foreign fleets in their waters and costs have increased. While some high seas areas are overseen by regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), there is no comprehensive regulatory body for fishing on the high seas with global scope. As high seas areas become increasingly regulated by the patchwork of RFMOs, fishing quotas may be distributed to fleets that have historical fishing presence in the area. A task force report published in 2010 by Chinese government, industry and academics argued that countries with a longer history of using the ocean have more power in determining how resources are distributed and thus receive a larger share of those resources — “occupying brings about rights and interests.” In accordance with these trends, China’s DWF fleet caught 66% of its catch from the high seas in 2017, compared to 43% in 2010.

Chinese investment in this strategy is reflected by which provinces these vessels call home. Of the 364 vessels found operating outside the Galapagos in July and August 2020, 92 could not be linked definitively to a specific owner. Of the remaining 272, 188 were from Zhejiang province. Because Chinese vessels owned by the same company tend to have uniform names distinguished by different numbers, it is likely that 50 vessels without company names are also from Zhejiang because of similarities in their names. Therefore, two-thirds (238) of the fishing vessels are likely from Zhejiang. Of the remainder, 46 are from Shandong province, plus 19 more likely from Shandong, for a total of 65, or 18% (Figure 2).

It is no coincidence that Zhejiang and Shandong are the home provinces for 83% of the fleet. They are the largest recipients of at least one DWF fisheries subsidy program, each receiving about 2.1 billion Chinese yuan (U.S. $324.6 million) from the central government from 2018 to 2019. The third-largest recipient, Fujian province, which accounted for the next largest batch of fishing vessels, received 1.181 billion yuan (U.S. $182.5 million) in government subsidies during the same period. These three provinces were also the top producers of the PRC’s official total DWF catch, which amounted to 2.257 million tons in 2018 (Figures 2 and 3).

As the PRC aims to increasingly bring its global catch home, these three provinces are also the location of three new or planned ports dedicated to landing DWF catch. Zhejiang brings in the largest share of China’s DWF catch (24% in 2018). Thus, in 2015, the first national DWF fishing port was proposed for Zhoushan, Zhejiang. Zhoushan National DFW Base, supported by government funding, serves to promote DWF seafood to the domestic market, with port infrastructure to support the docking of 1,300 fishing vessels, processing and storage facilities, throughput for 1 million tons of catch annually and a shipbuilding center. Squid is the main species landed at the port, facilitated by its China DWF Squid Trade Center.

Shandong, the country’s third-largest producer of DWF catch (20% in 2018), is home to the second port, Shawodao National DWF Base, approved for construction in 2016 in the city of Rongcheng. With similar support facilities, Shawodao will be able to dock 1,000 fishing vessels and handle the trade of 600,000 tons of fish, including squid and tuna. Fujian, home to the PRC’s first group of DWF vessels and its second-largest producer of DWF catch (21% in 2018), will host the third port, Fuzhou (Lianjiang) National DWF Base in the city of Fuzhou, which was approved for construction in 2019.

The changing patterns in the PRC’s DWF policies are also reflected in the trade and catch data. The PRC’s squid imports from Argentina and Peru have fallen (Figure 4), while its own catch has risen, possibly because it decided to catch squid through its DWF fleet. Zhejiang’s squid catch grew from 69,000 tons in 2009 to 356,000 tons in 2018, while Shandong’s squid catch grew from 21,000 tons to 102,000 tons over the same period, according to the PRC’s official statistics.


Visualizing even a portion of the fishing activities in July and August 2020 is instructive on a few fronts. Based on Windward’s algorithmic analysis of AIS data, each dot on the image below represents a Chinese vessel fishing during that period (Figure 5).

Not a single dot appears within the Galapagos’ EEZ, the edge of which is almost perfectly outlined by the dots. This is consistent with statements made by Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno on Twitter, namely that his nation’s focus is on protecting the EEZ.

The Chinese fleet is not permitted to fish in Ecuador’s EEZ, and, insofar as the AIS data indicates, the fleet appeared to be only on the high seas and not in the EEZ.

This contrasts with past behavior. Take, for example, the visualization of activities in July and August 2017, when Chinese vessels fished within the Galapagos’ EEZ (Figure 6). 

These illegal fishing activities culminated in the arrival of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 in the EEZ on August 12, 2017. Three days later, the vessel was seized, and the captain and crew ultimately were sentenced to four years in prison and fined U.S. $6.1 million. The operators may have believed that the refrigerated cargo vessel, unlike a fishing vessel, was not likely to be detected, much less seized for its involvement in illegal fishing. As reported, however, the cargo vessel was transshipping illegal catch from “dark” fishing vessels at sea, though these fishing crews were never arrested and prosecuted for their illegal activities (Figure 7).

Judging from the AIS activity and the PRC’s policy responses, the incident made the Chinese fleet more cautious. The PRC created an IUU fishing blacklist by the end of 2017, removed some subsidies to punish vessels caught engaging in IUU fishing, created a DWF training and compliance center and capped the fleet at 3,000 vessels. In February 2020, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs revised its DWF regulations, formalizing the prohibition on IUU fishing and calling on vessels to leave a buffer around off-limit areas. While the regulations do not specify the buffer’s size, a follow-on notification on DWF safety determined it to be 1.85 kilometers.

IUU Fishing on the High Seas?

While the fleet does not seem to be illegally fishing in the Galapagos EEZ, the vessels are subject to RFMO rules that govern fishing on the high seas. Tuna fishing in this area is managed by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), an RFMO of which the PRC is a member. The IATTC sets annual quotas for tuna species and keeps lists of registered fishing and transport vessels, as well as vessels caught engaging in IUU fishing. The PRC has 415 longline tuna vessels registered with the IATTC. Of the 364 vessels fishing outside the Galapagos EEZ in July and August 2020, only one was registered with the IATTC.

The majority of the fleet is under the jurisdiction of the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO), which regulates high seas species aside from tuna, such as jack mackerel and, now, squid. Of the 363 vessels fishing outside the Galapagos EEZ not registered with the IATTC, all but 16 were registered with the SPRFMO. As one of the newer RFMOs, established in 2012, its species coverage is still growing. China began fishing jack mackerel with 15 vessels in 2003 after conducting exploratory catch missions in 2001 and 2002. China’s jack mackerel catch grew from 14,000 tons in 2005 to 61,229 tons in 2018, with Shandong province accounting for 65%, followed by Zhejiang province at 24%.

The first large-scale regulation of high seas squid came in 2020. The SPRFMO issued measures to regulate jumbo flying squid fishing, which entered into force in 2021. Until then, China’s squid fishing was not illegal but rather unreported, and the PRC may have been establishing the largest fishing presence possible and taking advantage of the absence of regulations. Also in 2020, the Chinese government initiated the first moratorium on high seas squid fishing, including an area adjacent to the Galapagos. This suggests that the PRC recognizes that its fleet’s fishing levels are so unsustainable as to be undermining its long-term interests.

After all, 700 of the 1,135 vessels registered to the SPRFMO, or 62%, are flagged to China. The next two largest fleets number 127 and 99, flagged to Panama and Peru, respectively.

The Remaining Challenges

While the Chinese fleet seemed to have avoided illegal fishing in the Galapagos EEZ and is largely registered with the relevant RFMOs, there is still cause for concern. Vessels can turn off their AIS transponders and go dark. There are concerns with the flagging of Chinese vessels to other countries and issues with transshipping catch. Similar vessel names and changes in reported vessel measurements increase law enforcement challenges. Finally, even if it is legal, this fishing activity is not necessarily sustainable.

The Chinese fleet may have done one of three things to avoid either breaking the law or appearing to break the law:

Stayed just outside the EEZ.

Sent only dark vessels into the EEZ.

Used non-Chinese-flagged vessels to provide catch from within the EEZ and transshipped on the high seas.

By concentrating so many vessels outside the EEZ, with AIS on, the approach may be to distract from any dark incursions into the Galapagos’ waters or to hide the transshipments with other vessels in plain sight. The picture of fishing activities in July and August 2020 when looking at all vessels, not just Chinese, shows that 554 vessels engaged in fishing operations, many of them inside the EEZ (Figure 8).

Delving into the data further indicates that 363 of those vessels engaged in fishing operations and met with another vessel, suggesting transshipment or bunkering, the process of supplying fuel to ships. Not surprisingly,  most vessel meetings were Chinese-to-Chinese or Ecuadorian-to-Ecuadorian. Excluding those meetings, and further excluding passenger craft, there were only 20 vessels of note. The overwhelming majority of those are Chinese-owned and Panamanian-flagged, and most are refrigerated cargo vessels — the sort used to transport fish.

The ‘Reefers’

The behavior of the refrigerated cargo vessels, or “reefers,” shows that the fleet may have learned from the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 experience. The He Tai, for example, is owned by a Chinese company with the same address as the Chinese company that operates the vessel. The address is in the same area as other companies that own and operate some of the fleet’s Chinese-flagged vessels. The He Tai is flagged in Panama and has never crossed into the Galapagos EEZ. It has, however, rendezvoused with 25 of the 364 Chinese vessels that were fishing in the area, two of them twice (Figure 9). While not necessarily illegal, this reflagging is generally seen as a way to seek lower standards for fishing operations. China has announced new measures regulating transshipment of catch on the high seas, although it’s unclear whether these would cover transshipment to vessels flagged to other countries.

Other examples suggest issues with dark vessels and altered vessel measurements. Take, for example, the Ming Hang 5, a Hong Kong-flagged reefer that in July and August 2020 rendezvoused 42 times with the Chinese fishing fleet. The behavioral patterns indicate suspicious activity. On July 13, the Ming Hang 5 met with six of the Chinese fleet and changed its draft three times from 0.0 to 6.8 to 0.0 and back to 6.8 — a tactic indicative of efforts to obscure the vessel’s real draft and any changes to it arising from fishing or transshipment. Furthermore, after the six meetings, it deviated course. Looking closely at those meetings shows that the Gang Tai 8 was dark for the four days prior to meeting the Ming Hang 5, and the Ming Zhou 622 was dark for 10 hours the day before. Similarly, on July 30, the Ming Hang 5 changed its draft between 0.0 and 6.8 five times and had a 14-hour meeting with the Fu Yuan Yu 7875, which spent 13 hours of the previous day dark (Figure 10). The Fu Yuan Yu 7875 has the same owner as the Fu Yuan Yu 7862, which was the last vessel known to meet with the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 before its seizure in August 2017.

As Figure 10 indicates, the Ming Hang 5 crossed the Galapagos EEZ between July 10 and 11. 

Just before entering the EEZ on the morning of July 10, it changed its registered length from 172 meters to 150 meters. That evening, it changed its draft from N/A to 6.8 and its length back to 172 meters. Two hours later, it changed its draft from 6.8 to 0.0 and its length to 150 meters. Less than an hour later — just after midnight — it changed the draft to 6.8 and the length to 172 meters. This back-and-forth continued several more times before the vessel departed the EEZ. The Ming Hang 5’s confusing pattern of conduct, along with its other erratic draft changes, indicates an effort to obfuscate its activity and intended purpose. A look at its sister vessel, under common ownership, provides an interesting comparison. The Ming Hang 7 had 54 meetings with the Chinese fleet before heading for China with 119% of its cargo capacity by tonnage. In other words, despite not calling at any ports, it was overfull, strongly indicating fisheries transshipment.

This dynamic is consistent with some of the other reefers. The Yong Hang 3 repeatedly changed its draft between 6.5 and 0.0, making it impossible to determine how its 19 meetings with the Chinese fleet affected its actual draft. The Shen Ju had been in the area since April 2020 and constantly switched its draft between 7.8 and 0.0, making it impossible to determine the effect of its 55 meetings with the fleet. The Shun Ze Leng 6 only took that name when it changed ownership March 29, 2020. Afterward, it never called at a port but did meet 50 times with the Chinese fleet and added a half meter of draft before heading back to China at 83% of capacity by tonnage. The Yong Xiang 9 had been in the area since April 2020 without making a port call, meeting with the fleet 18 times before heading back to China.

All of this points to a systematic attempt to transship the catch on the high seas to bring it back to China. The obfuscation tactics may be a mix of concern about reputational harm and uncertainty about applicable law.


Of the 20 reefers, six are tankers. One is unidentifiable, suggesting it was operating illegally, although it only had two meetings with vessels in the Chinese fleet, both with the Lu Rong Yuan Yu 939. The B. Pacific, which only had one meeting, is the sister tanker to the B. Atlantic, which is well known for bunkering in the Gulf of Guinea. Interestingly, that meeting was with the Fu Yuan Yu 7876, sister vessel to the 7875 and 7862. The Hai Soon 26 engaged in eight meetings but only entered the area in late August 2020 and left in early September, suggesting it was possibly taking advantage of the high concentration of vessels for bunkering. Conversely, the remaining three tankers — the Hai Xing (39 meetings), the Hai Gong You 303 (69 meetings) and the Ocean Splendid (89 meetings) — all seem to have been in the area specifically to service not only the Chinese fleet but also reefers such as the Shun Ze Leng 6 that appear to have been transshipping with the fishing vessels. While such bunkering is not illegal, it is indicative of the operation’s extent because maintaining the Chinese fleet at sea requires a variety of service vessels, including tankers.


Another questionable practice is the use of the same name for different vessels, which can make interdiction more difficult by allowing the vessels to point a finger at each other. An interesting example is the United Kingdom-flagged Zhou Yu 921, not to be confused with the Chinese-flagged Zhou Yu 921, which is part of the Chinese fleet. The British vessel is 33 meters long, and the Chinese vessel is 51 meters. While the British vessel’s owners cannot be verified, there is substantial reason to suspect a close relationship to its Chinese-flagged namesake because the vessels met 19 times in July and August 2020.

An Ecuadorian Navy officer examines images of fishing boats after a fleet of mostly Chinese-flagged vessels was detected near the Galapagos Islands’ exclusive economic zone August 7, 2020.

In three other cases, different vessels had the same name and International Maritime Organization (IMO) number. Both the Chang An 168 and the Chang Tai 812 shared a name and IMO number with another vessel, though, in the latter case, the vessels had different Mobile Maritime Service Identity (MMSI) numbers. One name, the Jin Hai 779, was used by three vessels fishing in the area, each of which also used identical IMO and MMSI numbers. Such use of identical names and identifying numbers by multiple vessels is illegal. Additionally, two vessels had similar names, the Jia De 12 and the Jia Da 12, but only the former was on the SPRFMO list of registered vessels.


This analysis examined the Chinese fleet around the Galapagos to better understand its macrobehavior over time, the industry drivers and some of the fleet’s recent tactics, and to ascertain whether IUU fishing is occurring. In most cases, what is detectable may not be illegal, and the Chinese fleet clearly is taking care to give the appearance of compliance with national and international laws. As the recent changes in Chinese policy suggest, some of this compliance is likely genuine. China cares about its international reputation, and knowledge about marine environmental protection is growing there.

At the same time, the PRC’s competing domestic priorities are resulting in what is likely some illegal fishing and definitely unreported and unregulated activity, requiring different policy responses. The evidence suggests that dark vessel activity and multinational shell games are obscuring illegal fishing inside the Ecuadorian EEZ around the Galapagos. If Ecuador can more closely monitor the activities not just of the fleet, but of the companies that own it and the vessels that service it, a more complete picture can be drawn.

The fishing activities on the high seas outside the Galapagos EEZ are unregulated, and the total fishing effort seems unsustainable and irresponsible from an environmental standpoint. The fleet likely would not be able to operate without the enormous subsidies the Chinese government provides every year. In 2018, China provided an estimated 21% of all global fisheries subsidies and 27% of the harmful global subsidies. The deep pockets of the Chinese government result in a global fishing fleet that exceeds the size of any other.

While this analysis focused on the peak months of July and August 2020 around the Galapagos, the phenomenon has by no means ended — most of the vessels moved south and, as of mid-October 2020, were concentrated in the high seas outside the central and southern portions of the Peruvian EEZ (Figure 11).

The response to high seas fishing must be global. Scientific understanding of high seas fisheries is not as robust as that of coastal fisheries, and thus a precautionary approach is important. Not only does unsustainable fishing threaten long-term food security and the industry’s economic viability, it may decrease marine biodiversity, which is already under threat from climate change. At the national level, the U.S. Seafood Import Monitoring Program could be expanded to cover squid, which is the main genus the fleet targets. Regionally, organizations such as the Comision Permanente del Pacifico Sur, which represents the collective fisheries interests and management of Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, can collaborate on high seas management and protection. At the international level, we must support the U.N. efforts to establish an agreement on protecting biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. The outcome of the World Trade Organization negotiations on fisheries subsidies will also be crucial. The PRC is seeking exemptions, arguing that it is still a developing country.

Development, however, can never be to the detriment of the entire planet, and unsustainable fishing practices around the world have put extreme pressure on global fish stocks and dramatically diminished ocean health. Our ability to sustain human life depends on our ability to maintain the resources needed for our sustenance. As much as this matter is up for legal, political or environmental debate, it is most fundamentally a concern for all humanity.  

This article was first published October 19, 2020, on the Center for International Maritime Security website. Windward provided data and visualization for Figures 1 and 5-11. It has been edited to fit FORUM’s format.