In South America, are the tides turning against illegal fishing?

Chinese fishers caught at least one whale shark off the coast of Ecuador. (© Conservation International/photo by Mark V. Erdmann)

In August, the government of Ecuador prosecuted a Chinese ship’s crew for illegally transporting endangered species, including more than 6,000 sharks. The case made headlines worldwide and was one of the largest busts to date of illegal fishing in the Galápagos Marine Reserve.

Recently, Luis Suarez, vice president of Conservation International (CI) Ecuador, sat down with Human Nature to discuss why this case got so much international attention and what the outcome could mean for the global fight against illegal fishing.

Question: Take us through what happened in August.

Answer: The Galápagos Marine Reserve detected a Chinese ship inside a protected area using Automatic Identification System (AIS) technology [a GPS system designed to detect nearby ships]. The Ecuadorean Army, Navy and Galápagos Marine Reserve staff approached the ship and sent vessels to capture the boat. They boarded the boat and found a spectacular number of species, including endangered sharks. [The government asked] a local Conservation International employee to board the ship and to help identify all of the species. Though technically it was a transportation boat [designed to carry the catch from other boats in the fleet], there were a number of fishing resources onboard. This combination enabled the authorities to capture the boat and take legal action against the boat’s crew.

The way the national prosecutor chose to try the case was unique: The prosecutor took the case to court and used the argument that the ship was illegally transporting endangered species, without mention of illegal fishing. And it’s true, the ship the government caught wasn’t fishing. It was a huge transportation boat, which made it difficult to demonstrate where the species were originally captured — prosecutors didn’t have strong evidence that the species were captured inside the Galápagos Marine Reserve, which is a protected area. However, it was clear that the boat was transferring illegal species, and that’s the information the prosecutor could use: that this boat was transporting literally hundreds of sharks and other endangered species that are legally protected.

Q: Why did it get so much worldwide attention?

A: Before the case was even tried, I think everybody was just absolutely shocked by the number of species on the boat. Authorities found at least one whale shark, several juvenile sharks and numerous other species, many of them endangered. Prosecuting this case and bringing the perpetrators of this crime to justice became a national priority, in part thanks to the strong relationship between the Galápagos National Park, the minister of the environment, the minister of marine operations and the president of Ecuador. In fact, the president commented on the case, saying that Ecuador would not tolerate illegal fishing because Galápagos is a [UNESCO] World Heritage Site.

There could have been serious repercussions because of the Ecuadorean government’s choice to incarcerate the Chinese crew. Because of the strength and swiftness of the government’s response to this crime, and due to the president’s clear position on the matter, the Chinese government has taken caution with how it chose to respond to the matter. [Editor’s note: China’s ambassador in Quito, Wang Yulin, said in August that his country wanted to take all measures necessary to “put an end to these illicit practices.”]

Q: What was the outcome of the case, and what has the response been since it came out?

A: The Ecuadorean judge sentenced the 20 Chinese fishermen with up to four years in jail and fined them a total of US$ 5.9 million for transporting endangered species off the Galápagos Islands.

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This case shows that the government had the political will to act against fishing and illegal transportation of endangered species. I hope this will send a strong message to the fishing sector that Ecuador’s taking serious actions against illegal fishing.

This case also helped draw attention to just how much illegal fishing is going on along the Galápagos, despite the protections. Photos, images and satellites revealed a huge fleet of ships in the area, which shocked people. The local fishers took this opportunity to show why the government needs to do something to stop illegal fishers from taking local fishers’ resources.

It was very interesting to see the Galápagos Marine Reserve, the local fishermen and the general population marching together against illegal fishing and telling everybody, we need to do something about this. It caused everybody to say: “We need to do something.”

Q: Will this change things in the Galápagos?  

A: I think it will. Beyond the fishers asking for support given the size and scale of illegal fishing in the area, this case also spurred the Navy to tell the government they needed more support, because preventing illegal fishing requires more resources for them to be successful.

CI has supported the Galápagos National Park Service and the Navy in controlling and surveilling the Galapagos Marine Reserve by providing training and equipment for years. We’ve been frustrated in the past when boats doing illegal activities were captured, but the punishments handed down weren’t very strong. In this case the stars were aligned.

This was one case of illegal species transportation, but it’s emblematic of the positive direction Ecuador is taking to crack down on illegal fishing. One of the characteristics of this particular case was the agility and courage shown by the Ecuadorean government, especially given all of the pressure from the Chinese government and others. I think the way it was handled gave us a preview of how illegal fishing will be handled in the future.

Luis Suarez is vice president of CI-Ecuador.

Morgan Lynch is a staff writer for Conservation International. 

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