Galapagos under threat: Massive fleet of Chinese fishing vessels accused of threatening wildlife

Mimi Swaby
·3 min read
The Chinese fishing fleet have been accused of filling beaches with plastic - Esme Plunkett
The Chinese fishing fleet have been accused of filling beaches with plastic - Esme Plunkett

A 260-strong Chinese fishing fleet near the Galapagos Islands is filling the pristine beaches with plastic and endangering its delicate ecosystem, environmentalists claim.

The ships are currently in international waters just outside a 188-mile-wide marine reserve around the island - their presence has already raised the prospect of serious damage to the delicate ecosystem, as the boats sit on the migration routes of endangered hammerhead and whale sharks.

Esme Plunkett, a biologist and researcher for the Charles Darwin Foundation in the Galapagos, fears their “fishing techniques do not follow many by-catch regulations,” meaning endangered species are caught in the nets.

The fleet's crew is suspected of throwing plastic waste overboard, which is polluting the ocean and beaches.

Ms Plunkett said: “It is not unusual to find the odd bottle washed up from the other side of the world but I have never seen a quantity like this before and all the Mandarin labels are intact suggesting they were recently disposed of.”

Ecuador is patrolling the waters to make sure the fleet does not enter the marine reserve. A Chinese vessel was found in the marine reserve in 2017 laden with 300 tonnes of wildlife, predominantly sharks.

Oswaldo Jarrin, the Ecuadorian defence minister, told reporters: "We are on alert, (conducting) surveillance, patrolling to avoid an incident such as what happened in 2017."  

Walking on a secluded beach for 30 minutes Ms Plunkett found 45 plastic bottles, more than she has ever found previously, where usually she would find only rope and bottlecaps.

Similar stories are echoed by locals returning from sea with kayaks and dingies full of plastic waste.

The plastic is an immediate threat to ocean wildlife who ingest it, killing them by blocking their airways or poisoning.

It continues to pose a threat onshore to land birds, such as Darwin’s Finches, iguanas and other animals.

The Galapagos islands inspired much of Charles Darwn's theory of evolution, who observed that the species on the different islands were similar but had adapted differently to their particular environments.

They sit at the confluence of three ocean currents, and play host to the world's most diverse selection of marine wildlife.  

Marine Iguana, Amblyrynchus cristatus, on Isla Bartolome, Galapagos Islands -  Juergen Ritterbach/Getty Images
Marine Iguana, Amblyrynchus cristatus, on Isla Bartolome, Galapagos Islands - Juergen Ritterbach/Getty Images

Current research is investigating how plastic is a means for foreign organisms to travel to the Galapagos; the introduction of invasive species is the largest threat to the island’s ecosystem.

“Everyone is concerned, upset and wanting a response from the authorities,” says Ms Plunkett. “No one likes to see their home exploited or polluted, especially when the community has invested so much in conservation. To see all that work going down the drain is very difficult.”

A large social media movement headed by SOS Galapagos is spreading awareness and “making a noise” to “push for global involvement.”

“The Galapagos is a World Heritage site so this is a global problem. We don’t have the resources to monitor something this big, so it needs global pressure and action," said Ms Plunkett.

The Chinese Embassy in Ecuador said: "The Galapagos Islands are an important natural reserve of Ecuador and a precious natural and cultural heritage for all mankind. China understands, respects and supports Ecuador's measures to protect the marine environment and resources.

"We have found that all Chinese fishing boats are operating in the high seas outside the Exclusive Economic Zone of The Galapagos Islands in a normal and lawful manner." 

Additional reporting by Yiyin Zhong