Overfishing and potential solutions have received lots of attention in our pages over the years. It is not a new problem. And yet, we now have better metrics for how serious the problem is and who is responsible, currently, for making the problem worse. The screenshot to the left does not capture the full value of the dynamic illustration accompanying this article. Click the image to go to the source:
With its own coastal waters depleted, China has built a global fishing operation unmatched by any other country.
Rich and ecologically diverse, the waters around the Galápagos Islands have attracted local fishermen for centuries. Now, these waters face a much larger, more rapacious hunter: China.
The Galápagos are part of Ecuador. And yet each year growing numbers of Chinese commercial ships, thousands of miles from home, fish here, at times right on the edge of Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone.
The Chinese ships since 2016 have operated off South America virtually all day, all year, moving with the seasons from the coasts of Ecuador to Peru …
… and eventually to Argentina, where they have fished for what amounts collectively to more than 16,000 days already this year.
The scale has raised alarms about the harm to the local economies and the environment, as well as the commercial sustainability of tuna, squid and other species.
Over the last two decades, China has built the world’s largest deep-water fishing fleet, by far, with nearly 3,000 ships. Having severely depleted stocks in its own coastal waters, China now fishes in any ocean in the world, and on a scale that dwarfs some countries’ entire fleets near their own waters.
The impact is increasingly being felt from the Indian Ocean to the South Pacific, from the coasts of Africa to those off South America — a manifestation on the high seas of China’s global economic might.
The Chinese effort has prompted diplomatic and legal protests. The fleet has also been linked to illegal activity, including encroaching on other countries’ territorial waters, tolerating labor abuses and catching endangered species. In 2017, Ecuador seized a refrigerated cargo ship, the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, carrying an illicit cargo of 6,620 sharks, whose fins are a delicacy in China.
Much of what China does, however, is legal — or, on the open seas at least, largely unregulated. Given the growing demands of an increasingly prosperous consumer class in China, it is unlikely to end soon. That doesn’t mean it is sustainable.
In the summer of 2020, the conservation group Oceana counted nearly 300 Chinese ships operating near the Galápagos, just outside Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone, the 200 nautical miles off its territory where it maintains rights to natural resources under the Law of the Sea Treaty. The ships hugged the zone so tightly that satellite mapping of their positions traced the zone’s boundary.
Together, they accounted for nearly 99 percent of the fishing near the Galápagos. No other country came close…
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