By Carlos Javier Perez-
The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago situated in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 1,000 km off the coast of Ecuador. The islands were made famous by Charles Darwin whose theory of evolution was based on his experience studying the diverse and unique fauna inhabiting the islands. Famous examples of species only found in the islands include the giant Galápagos tortoise, the marine iguana, and the Galápagos penguin; however, the archipelago is host to over 9,000 species expanded over the land and the surrounding waters, many of which are endemic. Such richness led to it being declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978 following Ecuador’s action to declare 97% of it a National Park, limiting human settlement to only 3% of the area.
In July 2020, a threat to the ecosystem emerged with a Chinese fleet of 260 fishing vessels residing in the outskirts of this Ecuadorian territory, 200 nautical miles west of the islands. This is not the first time that Chinese vessels have intervened in the area. In 2017 a Chinese vessel was captured within Ecuadorian territory for illegal fishing practices and upon inspection, it was found to have several dead endangered species on board, including 6,000 frozen sharks believed to be highly sought after for their fins- the main ingredient in the preparation of fin soup, a Chinese delicacy. International media has brought the issue to the world’s attention and national uproar has called for action to be taken against the ships. However, Ecuador is limited in its options as the fleet lies in international waters, outside Ecuadorian jurisdiction.
The damage that the fleet does to the ecosystem goes beyond just fishing. Tons of rubbish with Chinese labels have been washing up the shores of the nearby islands. Waste including plastic bottles, toothbrushes, razors, and empty toxic waste containers have been found on the beaches of the islands located to the south of the Galápagos. The suspicion that the rubbish originated from the fishing fleet was verified when the ship that was taken into custody in 2017 was found with little waste relative to the length of their stay and the number of people aboard. These residues present a potentially devastating impact on the ecosystem and research by the Charles Darwin Foundation found that floating plastics serve as carriers of non-native organisms including potentially invasive species, a leading cause for animal extinction.
Michael Pompeo, United States Secretary of State, released a statement condemning the fishing practices by the Chinese fleet and in a tweet expressed its support to Ecuador by calling on Bejing to stop engaging in the unregulated fishing activities. The Chinese embassy in Ecuador retaliated by calling on the United States government to “concentrate on their work” and that their comments are an attempt to “destroy a good friendship.” These comments make Ecuador and its islands another token caught in the middle of a diplomatic conflict between the two superpowers.
Ecuador currently finds itself in a difficult situation, on the one hand, it must protect the unique ecosystem that is the Galápagos Islands but on the other, it is limited in the actions it can take against Chinese activity in the area. This is partially due to its legislative limitations but more importantly because of the influence and power of the two nations involved- China and the United States. The United States, on the one hand, is Ecuador’s most important trading partner and an important ally in the fight against drug trafficking. China, on the other hand, is Ecuador’s second-largest trading partner and an important financier of the coastal nation which owes them over 5 billion USD.
So far, the Ecuadorian government has created a public-private commission to study potential strategies to protect the islands and its species. A promising option is the implementation of a multinational corridor that connects what are currently independently protected areas of Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica which would in turn block access of fishing boats by turning spaces of international waters into protected areas. In the meantime, the national government has reached a short term solution with Chinese officials as they have declared a ban on deep fishing taking place on the west of the Galápagos from September to November of this year (2020). Sadly, whilst this may seem like progress, it, in fact, demonstrates hardly any gains at all as, during the last three years, the Chinese fishing vessels have been active during June, July, and August and hence will be on their way out by the time the ban takes effect.
Whilst this is the reality of a small country, it is a shame to see one of the most beautiful areas in the world be caught up in a diplomatic fight, where a right move for the environment could be atrocious for the future of Ecuador and its citizens.