42 years ago, Ecuador began its transition to democracy when Unesco chose Galapagos as the first place in the world to launch the list of Natural Heritage of Humanity. Now, that “seedbed of life”, defined as the environment where endangered species go to reproduce, is at risk. A fishing fleet of 260 Chinese ships stalks the archipelago on the outer edge of the waters of Ecuadorian jurisdiction without the Government of President Lenín Moreno being able to do more than appeal to diplomacy. “As long as the diplomatic channel exists, it will be the only one to which we turn,” said the State Attorney General, Íñigo Salvador, at a press conference with the country’s new Foreign Minister, Luis Gallegos; the Minister of Defense, Oswaldo Jarrín, and the President of the Galápagos Government Council, Norman Wray. The four, which represent the different actions that the country has to face the problem, coincide in maintaining bilateral negotiations and waiting for the good will of the Asian giant.
The Chinese ships – which are also accompanied by ships with the flags of other countries such as Liberia or Panama, according to the Ministry of Defense – are in a corridor of international waters that separates the two areas of Ecuadorian jurisdiction: the 200 miles that surround the Galapagos Islands and another 200 miles stretching from the mainland. The surface area monitored and controlled by Ecuador totals a million kilometers but it is split in half and it is right in that corridor of the high seas where the fishing fleet that threatens marine species has settled. “They reached the outer limit of the archipelago. In the corridor between the two zones. But no ship has ever entered and cannot do so ”, says the Minister of Defense, who acknowledges that this situation is repeated every year. In 2019, the presence of another 245 fishing vessels of Chinese nationality was detected and in 2017, 100 arrived.
That year, in fact, one of the ships entered the exclusive economic zone of Ecuador and the authorities intervened. They found 300 tons of shark fins in their holds and the ship was seized. Now it is part of the supply logistics of the archipelago. “They come to Galapagos because it is a protected marine area in which life reproduces, to which endangered species come to reproduce,” says Norman Wray, the political authority that governs the islands.
Unlike what happened three years ago, this time Ecuador cannot break into any of the vessels because they remain outside of its surveillance area, despite the fact that the four authorities recognize that the fishing activity of these vessels threatens the biodiversity that is moves underwater without artificial borders. “The authorities only have jurisdiction over the Ecuadorian territory. An inspection activity has no basis in either international or Ecuadorian law ”, clarified the country’s attorney general at the request of the Ombudsman to act to protect the natural heritage and the Galapagos marine reserve.
The presence of the fleet was detected in mid-July but it was this week when the matter has escalated to the diplomatic plane. Ecuador meets on Wednesday with Peru, Chile, Colombia and Panama, as an observer, within the framework of the South Pacific Commission, to discuss the issue with the coastal countries also affected. In addition, warnings have been sent to China through the embassies, said Foreign Minister Gallegos. And President Moreno ordered the formation of a group of experts to find solutions. “It is a difficult situation if China refuses to cooperate. It is not a signatory to the Convention of the Sea on illegal fishing. The point here is to put pressure on a very large country that has a veto in the United Nations so that it feels public shame. Because, in a coercive way, it is very complicated ”, recognizes Roque Sevilla, one of the members of the new team.