Chinese fishing boats target squid off Galapagos islands

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For Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, the Galapagos islands were the key to understanding how life, all life, evolved and developed.

The islands, situated hundreds of miles from the mainland in the Pacific are a world heritage site.

Not if you are a Chinese fisherman, though. An armada of nearly 300 Chinese vessels has sailed halfway across the globe to lure the elusive Humboldt squid from the Pacific Ocean’s depths.

According to the New Zealand Herald, the Associated Press with Spanish-language broadcaster Univision accompanied the Ocean Warrior fishing ship this summer on an 18-day voyage to observe the Chinese distant-water fishing fleet on the high seas off South America.

According to the newspaper, decades of over-fishing, and keeping China’s fishing flotilla at sea, is a technical feat made possible through billions in state subsidies. It said: “Beijing says it has zero tolerance for illegal fishing and points to recent actions such as a temporary moratorium on high-seas squid fishing as evidence of its environmental stewardship. Those now criticising China, including the US and Europe, for decades raided the oceans themselves. But the sheer size of the Chinese fleet and its recent arrival in the Americas has stirred fears that it could exhaust marine stocks.”

Meanwhile, activists are reportedly seeking restrictions on fishing as part of negotiations under way on a first-ever High Seas Treaty, which could boost international co-operation on the traditionally lawless waters that comprise nearly half of the planet.

Of the 30 vessels. the publication said, Associated Press (AP) observed up close, 24 had a history of labour abuse accusations, past convictions for illegal fishing or showed signs of possibly violating maritime law. Collectively, these issues underscored how the open ocean around the Americas where the US has long dominated and China is jockeying for influence — had become a magnet for the seafood industry’s worst offenders.



Charles Darwin studied the Galapagos islands
Charles Darwin studied the Galapagos islands

It said that, specifically, 16 ships either sailed with their mandatory safety transponders turned off, broadcast multiple electronic IDs or transmitted information that didn’t match their listed name or location – discrepancies that are often associated with illegal fishing, although AP saw no evidence they were engaged in illicit activity.

“Beijing is exporting its overfishing problem to South America,” reportedly said Captain Peter Hammarstedt, director of campaigns for Sea Shepherd, a Netherlands-based ocean conservation group that operates nine vessels, including the Ocean Warrior. “China is chiefly responsible for the plunder of shark and tuna in Asia.”

By all accounts, the Humboldt squid – named for the nutrient-rich current found off the southwest coast of South America – is one of the most abundant marine species. Some scientists believe their numbers may even be thriving as the oceans warm and their natural predators – sharks and tuna – are fished out of existence.

But biologists say they’ve never faced a threat like the explosion of industrial Chinese fishing off South America.

“It really is like the Wild West,” said Hammarstedt. “Nobody is responsible for enforcement out there.”

For dozens of Chinese ships, the journey to the warm equatorial waters near the Galapagos began months earlier, on the opposite side of South America, where every Austral summer, between November and March, hundreds of foreign-flagged jiggers scoop up untold amounts of short fin squid in one of the world’s largest unregulated fishing grounds.

Between November 2020 and May 2021, a total of 523 mostly Chinese fishing vessels – 35 per cent more than the previous season – were detected just beyond the boundary of Argentina’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, according to satellite data analysed by Windward, a maritime intelligence firm.

Of that amount, 42 per cent had turned off at least once their safety transponders. Meanwhile, 188 of those same vessels showed up near the Galapagos, including 14 Chinese vessels that went offline in both oceans for an average 34 hours each time.

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