MEDELLÍN, Colombia - Off the coast of Ecuador, a marine ecosystem is hurtling toward collapse.
The winch of a Chinese fishing trawler screams as it heaves a giant net up out of the cold sea. The net is bursting at the seams with giant Humboldt squid, sucked out of the Pacific ocean like a vacuum. Frozen and then packed, tonnes of these rubbery sea creatures will soon be heading for Asian, U.S. and European markets.
The dealers in this game are part of China’s distant water fleet of trawlers, a pirate-like cabal of ruff-and-tumble sailors who are pillaging South America’s lawless coastline of one of its keystone species. Squid is at the center of a complex food chain, which holds together the marine ecosystem.
The Chinese fleet has a sketchy fishing record. Map data from Global Fishing Watch shows illegal fishing inside the Galapagos islands - a highly sensitive ecosystem known for its diverse ecosystem of sea turtles, iguanas and penguins located off the coast of Ecuador. Netting squid is unregulated as long as it is in international waters, far from the islands. But trawlers often cross inside the Galapagos reserve waters and at times drag through the country’s exclusive economic zones for illegal catch.
And it’s not just squid they’re yanking out of Ecuador’s ocean.
Chinese industrial fishers are becoming notorious for illegally netting endangered sea turtles and hammerhead sharks. It’s called bycatch. And this fleet is growing more ambitious, skimming up and down the Pacific coast from the Galapagos to Patagonia. Endangered species and marine life key for sustaining the ocean’s food chains can’t stay out of the way.
“If you over-fish squid, the center of the food chain, it’s going to be detrimental to the rest of the system,” said Felipe Vallejo, the executive director of Equilibrio Azul, a marine conservation and research group based in Ecuador.
“Orcas and killer whales are eating that squid. If you take out the squid, the entire food system gets thrown off balance.”
It’s the recipe for environmental collapse in the world’s oceans. If, for example, sharks are removed from a reef ecosystem, then there will be sponge overgrowth. Sponge is an animal that plays a role in balancing the ecosystem by acting as a filtration system. But overgrowth could overwhelm the reef, effectively distorting the economy of marine life that depends on the reef.
China’s fleet - unchecked by Beijing - is wreaking havoc as U.S. President-elect Joe Biden pledges a harder line on environmental policy. By some expert estimates, there are twice as many fishing vessels as there should be for oceans to keep up the balance of its fish stocks. When these sought-after species around the Chinese coast and Japan began to decline starting in the 1980s, it meant a growing team of illegal fishermen from China began to seek sea creatures in the farthest flung corners of the ocean, like Africa and the western Pacific.
But more recently, that’s meant South America. In 2018, there were around 260 Chinese vessels that swarmed the South American coastline, according to Environmental Policies Circle (EPC), an Argentine marine conservation watchdog. In 2020, EPC recorded 305 Chinese vessels. As long as governments and international organizations fail to crackdown, the size of the fleet is expected to grow.
Seasons of Squid
Trawlers chase the seasons. From June to November, the fleet sucks on the Pacific. From November to May it heads south, dragging its nets across the Chilean coastline, rounding the Magellan strait on the southern tip of Argentina, and nests off the coast of northern Argentina and southern Uruguay. Here, too, they want squid.
“Argentine short-fin squid is the key species of the southwest Atlantic. Squid is one of the main foods for many other species like penguins, albatross, dolphins, for sea lions and elephant seals. Squid is at the center of the south Atlantic food chain,” said Milko Shvartzman, a marine conservation activist with EPC.
“The environmental impact is huge because no one knows exactly how much the Chinese distant water fleet actually catches,” Scharvtzman explains.
“They don't report it to anyone. The only information is what the captain sends to the Chinese government.”
Local fishermen are worried. Peruvian ships, 20 meters long, pay fair wages, comply with regulations, and fill up their tanks with international market-priced fuel. They’re competing with 70 meter-long Chinese trawlers who get their fuel subsidized by the Chinese government and skirt international rules.
“This is totally unfair competition,” said Shvartzman.
Although most squid goes to Asian markets, said Schwartzman, Chinese seafood merchants also re-package Argentine and Ecuadorian squid and sell it as a made-in-China product in U.S. and European markets.
The damage being done by China’s distant water fleet is not lost on South American governments. The Ecuadorian Navy is ramping up the fight against illegal fishing around the Galapagos.
“We’re trying to maintain controls and keep these squid trawlers from entering Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone and from depleting our natural resources,” said Diego Teran, a lieutenant commander in Ecuador’s navy.
The problem is that Ecuador’s navy can only patrol the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a 1 million square kilometer cube of salt water offshore. So if Chinese trawlers throw nets in international waters bordering the EEZ, they often get away with it.
And the Ecuadorian navy’s capacity is strained. With massive volumes of cocaine getting trafficked through the eastern Pacific by way of fast boats from Colombia and Ecuador up to Central America and Mexico, there’s already plenty of criminal nautical vehicles to track. In the wide open Pacific, many trawlers turn off their monitoring systems and slip through the cracks.
“Ecuador’s navy wants to fight back but just the Galapagos reserve alone is vast,” Vallejo said with a sigh. “You can’t control every inch. And the navy and the air force don’t have enough boats and planes to really handle the problem.”
The ocean’s wild west is also where big time squid deals go down. From deep in the middle of international waters, a cargo ship will soon come and buy a trawler’s catch at a transhipment point in the middle of the sea. According to Shvartzman, these Chinese trawlers hardly spend any time at port. Some will trawl for two or three years at sea before docking again. Their captains answer to no one but cold hard cash.
Vallejo hopes that more countries will join Ecuador and band together to pressure industrial fishing. But he’s wary about just how much progress can be made. China has indebted Ecuador by lending to the small country with strings attached, like obligatory oil shipments in exchange for non-payment of interest. Ecuador is struggling to pay China back for infrastructure financing. That means it is difficult for Ecuador to push back alone.
Colombia, Peru and Chile pledged recently that they would help combat the growing threat of China’s distant water fishing fleet off their shores.
Still, the Pacific is a vast, unruly place. It is hard to police an ocean. And the demand for squid in densely populated cities - far from the sea - is likely to power the fleet’s raison d’etre. As long as people are hungry for seafood, the Chinese lawless trawlers look set to keep sucking fragile marine life out the sea.