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Ecuador combats Chinese fleet’s illegal fishing with Canadian satellite technology

Diálogo Américas

The Ecuadorian government is using Canadian technology to monitor the Chinese fleet’s illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing around the Galápagos Islands. In early June 2022, the government detected 180 Chinese vessels near the islands’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), fishing for large Humboldt squid and threatening the region’s biodiversity and economy.

The Ecuadorian Navy patrols to prevent illicit fishing in the protected zone. “As long as these vessels are far from the insular EEZ, more than 100 miles [more than 160 kilometers] away, we monitor them by satellite,” Ecuadorian Navy Rear Adm. John Merlo León, commander of naval operations, told Ecuadorian television network Teleamazonas.

Space technology company MDA, based in Brampton, Ontario, has been providing satellite tracking, remote sensing and the ability to synthesize large amounts of data to the Ecuadorian Navy, Canada’s public broadcaster CBC reported. With tens of thousands of industrial fishing vessels in the world’s oceans, identifying illicit operators is like looking for a needle in a haystack, Mark Carmichael, a senior MDA executive, told CBC. In mid-September 2021, Ecuador and Canada signed an agreement for the use of satellites to detect and track “dark ships” — those whose location transponders are turned off.

Ecuadorian authorities also requested the assistance of Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Other organizations, including Global Fishing Watch, a Google-backed website that tracks commercial fishing, support the Ecuadorian government by interpreting vessel movements, including fishing in prohibited areas, CBC reported. (Pictured: The Ecuadorian Navy confiscated this Chinese-flagged ship discovered near the Galápagos Islands in August 2017.)

“It seems very positive to me that Ecuador has this type of agreement with companies or countries that collaborate on technological systems to detect these fleets, as is the case with Canada,” said Milko Schvartzman, an Argentine marine conservation expert and member of the nongovernmental organization Círculo de Políticas Ambientales, which seeks to strengthen environmental policies and promote ecosystem protection.

Illegal fishing takes toll

The Chinese fleet’s illegal fishing around the Galápagos Islands affect the region in several ways. “This fleet is not regulated, does not report to any authorities and has no observers on board. So, no one knows exactly how much they fish, since the information is only provided by the captain, without any monitoring,” Schvartzman said.

 It is not fully known where the vessels fish, the size of the specimens caught or the amount of by-catch. “As such, there is a very severe impact on the species [Humboldt squid] and on the entire marine ecosystem,” he said. The ocean contamination level is also unknown. By ignoring environmental regulations, the Chinese fleet generates tons of waste daily, Schvartzman added.

 “There is also an economic impact on South American coastal communities, as the Chinese fleet is subsidized by its flag state and competes in the markets, catching the same species that artisanal vessels from Peru and Ecuador catch,” he said. “And there is an impact on human rights, as the crews of this Chinese fleet are mostly Indonesians, Filipinos or from African countries who work in slave-like conditions.”

 Finding solutions

Experts say more international oversight is needed.

 “We have to work on a global agreement to protect the biodiversity of international waters,” Alexander Hearn, professor of biological and environmental sciences at San Francisco de Quito University in Ecuador, told Teleamazonas. In mid-June 2022, the World Trade Organization reached a historic agreement to end harmful fisheries subsidies. The agreement, a step toward meeting sustainable development goals, creates a global framework to curb subsidies for IUU fishing.

Schvartzman proposed several solutions. Among those “that every vessel has observers on board and comply with minimum international standards and norms for working conditions and safety on board, something that is not happening today,” he said.

 Transshipment on the high seas also should be regulated, Schvartzman said, and vessels should have a single name and registration. “Today the Chinese fleet uses twin ships, with the same names and the same license numbers to hide their activities,” he said.

 “It should also be mandatory for these vessels to always have global positioning systems on. As we know, the Chinese fleet turns them off all the time.”

Diálogo Américas is a publication of U.S. Southern Command.


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