07/30/2020, 16.39
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Hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels threaten the Galapagos, a world heritage site

by Silvina Premat

Chinese boats are fishing between the protected islands and the Ecuadorian coast, endangering the local marine life. The Chinese Embassy has expressed respect for the environment, but one expert slams China for repeatedly violating the sovereignty of coastal nations. Argentina stopped the same fleet in the South Atlantic. One problem is China fishing subsidies. One scholar calls for join efforts to save the oceans.

Buenos Aires (AsiaNews) – A large fleet of Chinese fishing boats is threatening one of the most delicate natural ecosystems in the Pacific Ocean in the pursuit of giant squids, sharks and other species, with tonnes of waste left behind.

All this is taking place in a legal vacuum that makes an international agreement to regulate maritime fishing increasingly urgent.

For Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno, the presence of about 260 Chinese ships between the Galapagos Islands and coastal Ecuador is a "danger".

As a consequence, the authorities of the South American country have deployed the coastguard and other naval units over the past week to check that none of the Chinese boats enters Ecuador’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which stretches 360 km from the coast.

Following the government's decision in Quito, the Chinese embassy issued a statement expressing respect and support for the measures taken by Ecuador to protect the environment and marine life.

“All Chinese fishing vessels operate legally in the high seas beyond the Galapagos EEZ, and they pose no threat to anyone,” read the communiqué, which goes on to stress that the legal rights of Chinese fishing vessels must also be guaranteed.

To this end, "China always requires its companies to fish in the open sea in accordance with national and international law, and pursues a 'zero tolerance' policy towards fishing vessels that fish illegally."

However, many in Latin America do not believe Chinese claims. “Chinese ships constantly violate [coastal] states’ sovereignty. They only give up when they come across Navy patrols. But as soon as controls slacken, they enter illegally,” said Milko Schvarzman, an Argentine specialist in marine conservation who works with the Argentine-based Círculo de políticas ambientales (Circle of environmental policies).

"The latest evidence for this dates back to this April,” he explained, “when the Argentine Naval Prefecture and the Argentinian Navy caught two Chinese and one Portuguese vessels fishing illegally in Argentina’s EEZ.”

From his research, Schvarzman is certain that the Chinese fishing fleet that is now south of the Galapagos is the same that was fishing in the southern Atlantic, near the waters under Argentine control, between December and May, the best time for fishing the famous Argentine shortfin squid.

"From June to November, it [the Chinese fishing fleet] is to the Pacific to catch giant squid and other species.”

For environmentalists, squids are the heart of the marine ecosystem; they are the main food for other species like hakes, dolphins, sperm whales, sea lions, penguins and others that cannot exist without this food.

"We are on high alert, patrolling [the waters] to avoid accidents like the one that happened in 2017," said Ecuadorian Defence Minister Oswaldo Jarrín speaking to the press.

Three years ago, a Chinese ship was caught inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve, a United Nations World Heritage Site. About 300 tonnes of fish were found in the ship’s cargo holds.

Maximiliano Bello, adviser to Mission Blue, an organization dedicated to the protection of the seas, stresses that Chinese ships receive state subsidies, an issue that is currently under review at the World Trade Organisation.

“We are analysing how to end fishing subsidies that damage the oceans. China should join this effort because; after all, the ocean is a source of life for the whole planet and for millions of people.”

It is also important for states to finalise an agreement, within a UN framework, on biodiversity outside national borders. "If we do not do something together, we will not be able to solve this problem," Bello explained.

Using a metaphor, Prof Marco Salinas, who teaches at Ecuador’s Institute of National Higher Studies in Quito and the Ecuadorian Naval War Academy, points to the same goal: "All [countries] are on the same boat and we share the same risks.”

“What better than join efforts through international law and regional organisations to avoid these problems?” said Salinas speaking about the problems due to the lack of fishing control mechanisms.

"We cannot wipe out a resource as rich as 'sea proteins',” he noted. “We need to fish, but it must be sustainable fishing that respects regulations and no fishing periods. This is about the future of our children and our children’s children.”

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