Galapagos Authorities Seize 300 Tons of Fish and Shark Carcasses

At 6 a.m. on Sunday, August 11th, the captain of a Galapagos National Park patrol vessel noticed something odd on his radar: a very large ship. Because the waters of the Galapagos Marine Reserve are severely restricted, he attempted to contact the ship, but received no answer. After several more unsuccessful attempts to make contact, Pelayo Salinas, an Ecuadorian Navy officer who also works for the Charles Darwin Foundation, and three others, jumped in a Zodiac and gave chase. Their 13-foot inflatable boat couldn’t keep up with the 300-foot ship, which the Ecuadorians had identified as Chinese, and they were soon forced to abandon their pursuit. Fortunately, park and Ecuadorian navy authorities working in the park’s control center were able to locate the ship using the park’s electronic surveillance system. A navy helicopter and coast guard ship were dispatched and the Chinese ship, the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, was finally detained about 40 miles north east of San Cristóbal. 

Though authorities had rightly suspected the vessel was involved in illegal fishing, there is no precedent in Galapagos history that could have prepared them for the sheer scale of the carnage they found on board; the ship’s six massive cargo bays contained approximately 300 tons of fish, including the carcasses of thousands (possibly tens of thousands) of sharks. While a full accounting of the ship’s inventory is currently underway, initial reports indicate that baby sharks and endangered hammerheads and silky sharks are among the victims. 

The 20 crew members working aboard the Chinese ship have been arrested and could each face up to three years in prison. While it still isn’t clear how many of the sharks were caught within the GMR, it is illegal to cross into the reserve without a permit and it is illegal to catch, trade or transport sharks there.

Sadly, even if the crew members receive stiff penalties for their actions, there is no doubt that more shark fishing ships will come to the Galapagos. Shark populations are plummeting worldwide in response to the ever-present demand for shark fin soup and other shark products in Asia and beyond. Conservationists estimate that 100,000,000 sharks per year are killed for their fins. As sharks become increasingly scarce in other places, shark-fishing operations have set their sites on the abundant waters of the GMR, where sharks populations are healthier than just about anywhere else on Earth. Compounding the problem is the sheer vastness of the GMR. Covering 51,0000 square miles (about the size of Louisiana or Greece), the GMR is exceedingly difficult and expensive to effectively patrol, especially for a small, developing nation like Ecuador. In fact, the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 was only detected by sheer luck. For some reason, probably by accident, the ship’s automatic tracking system had been left on. Experts believe that thousands of ships operate within the boundaries of the GMR each year without ever being detected. As such, no one truly knows the real impact of illegal fishing and poaching on the Galapagos archipelago. 

IGTOA is committed to helping Galapagos authorities battle the scourge of illegal fishing and poaching.  In 2013, for example, we donated $10,000 to Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's efforts to improve the enforcement and prosecution of environmental crimes in the Galapagos Islands.  In 2011, we donated six satellite-tracking devices to the Galapagos National Park Directorate as part of an effort to help locate and respond to vessels entering the GMR. In response to this latest tragedy, we are currently investigating other ways in which we might help end the scourge of illegal fishing in the Galapagos forever. 

Images courtesy of Galapagos National Park Directorate.


Matt Kareus

Matt is the Executive Director of IGTOA.

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