At the end of July, Ecuador was on alert as a flotilla of 260 Chinese fishing vessels was sighted near the Galapagos archipelago, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose aquatic species such as manta rays and sharks have been endangered by commercial fishing.
Every year, Ecuador faces the challenge of protecting its natural habitat from Chinese vessels.
Ecuador’s Defence Minister said the situation is repeated every year, when ships reach the outer limit of the archipelago, outside the country’s exclusive zone.
The flotilla, which also consisted of some Liberia and Panama-flagged vessels, was detected in an international water corridor situated between two areas of Ecuadorian jurisdiction – 200 miles away from both the Galapagos Islands and mainland Ecuador.
In 2019, 245 Chinese fishing vessels were sighted in the area where Ecuador’s writ does not extend.
In 2017, when a Chinese ship did enter Ecuador’s waters, its authorities seized it and discovered 300 tonnes of wildlife on board, mostly the critically endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks – a delicacy in China. As per media reports, two-thirds of hammerhead shark fins found in Hong Kong markets come from the Galapagos area.
Chinese vessels have also run into trouble with other countries in the region. In 2016, Argentina’s coast guard chased and sank a vessel that it claimed had been illegally fishing in the South Atlantic.
While Ecuador’s navy announced that it had sighted the flotilla in international waters on July 16, it was only during the last week of July that the matter escalated to a diplomatic level.
President Lenin Moreno said that Ecuador will discuss the “threat” with Peru, Chile, Colombia, and Panama – coastal countries of the region that have also been affected in the past.
The United States, which is already opposing China on multiple fronts, expressed its support for Ecuador. “The United States stands with President @Lenin and our friends and partners in #Ecuador against any aggression directed toward their economic and environmental sovereignty,” the US National Security Council had said in a tweet on July 29.
China on its part has maintained that it is a “responsible fishing nation” having a “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal fishing.
Renowned worldwide for its unique species, the islands host a wide array of aquatic wildlife, including marine iguanas, fur seals, and waved albatrosses. The giant tortoises found here – ‘Galápagos’ in old Spanish– give the islands its name.
Ecuador made a part of the Galapagos a wildlife sanctuary in 1935, and the sanctuary became the Galapagos National Park in 1959. In 1978, the islands became UNESCO’s first World Heritage Site.