• Franklin Vega

In Galapagos Islands, the Evidence of Illegal Fishing is on the Menu

In Galapagos, illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, is carried out by vessels of national and international origins.


This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network.

Screenshots from https://globalfishingwatch.org showing the Continental Exclusive Economic Zone of Ecuador ZZE and the Insular Exclusive Economic Zone of Ecuador, around the Galapagos Islands.


In 2021, the international fishing fleet — mostly made up of vessels called “poteros” in Spanish, which fish for giant squid (Dosidicus gigas) under the Chinese flag — remained an average of 200 nautical miles out of the limit of Ecuador's Insular Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The EEZ is the sea area surrounding Galapagos in a 200-mile strip. This was the official information from the Ecuadorian Navy, verified by Gustavo Manrique, Minister of Environment, Water and Ecological Transition in August 2021 during an interview with Bitácora Ambiental.

Such distancing is considered atypical behavior, as since 2017, the 300 international fishing industrial vessels have fished much closer at the very edge of the EEZ. In 2021, the explanations for this distance variation was divided. For Manrique, the reason was Ecuador's increased naval presence in the insular EEZ and the frequent warnings sent to foreign vessels. While for scientists like Alex Hearn, a marine biologist who has studied the Galapagos sea for 20 years, the reason is the unusual warming of the ocean near the islands, which is not the best for fishing for squid. According to Hearn, squid prefer cold waters that are richer in nutrients. During 2021, cold water circulated farther away from the Galapagos Islands.

The international fishing fleet — considered a powerful informal navy of China — has been involved in allegations of human rights violations, slavery and unauthorized transshipment, among others. In addition, among the vessels that comprise it, there are reefers which are refrigerated cargo ships, such as the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, the ship seized in Galapagos in 2017 for illegal fishing. This was the trigger for the creation of the new Galapagos Marine Reserve, because that vessel had sharks of protected species on board.

However, with the Chinese fleet far from the Ecuadorian sea, it became evident that illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing — defined as such in the 2001 FAO International Plan of Action to Combat IUU fishing — is also being perpetrated by vessels bearing Ecuadorian and Galapagos flags.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing occurs if "a fishing vessel is shown to be carrying out activities contrary to applicable conservation and management measures. This includes fishing without a valid license, in a closed area or during a closed season, or using prohibited fishing gear, as well as failure to comply with reporting obligations or obstruction to the work of inspectors."

Under these parameters, evidence of illegal, unreported, and unregulated artisanal fishing was found inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve and in the EEZ of mainland Ecuador. The following are some examples of illegal fishing in the islands and its relationship with the mainland.

1. Los combos de langostas inmaduras

Langostas que se venden en los restaurantes populares (quioscos de comida) que no alcanzan la talla mínima de 26 centímetros para las enteras y 15 centímetros para las colas. Foto: Franklin Vega


Platos con una langosta que cumple la talla mínima. Foto: Archivo Franklin Vega noviembre 2020.

Walking through the streets of Puerto Ayora, the tourist capital of the Galapagos Islands, two dishes on the menus of well-known restaurants catch the eye: one with green lobster (Panulirus gracilis) and another with scorpion fish (Scorpaena mystes). These dishes are offered to tourists as a gastronomic specialty of the islands.


The 2021 lobster season was authorized by the Galapagos National Park (GNP) from September 1 to December 31, without setting a limit on the maximum number of specimens. According to the Director of the GNP, the decision of not putting limits on catch was taken considering the data obtained from previous monitoring years of the populations of both lobster species, Panulirus gracilis and Panulirus penicillatus.


Cabezas de langostas en el muelle de pescadores de Pelikan Bay, Puerto Ayora, isla Santa Cruz. Foto: Franklin Vega


Lobsters must be caught in specific areas of the archipelago and only specimens with a minimum size of 26 centimeters for whole animals or 15 centimeter-long tails are permitted. However, in food kiosks (small informal restaurants) of Puerto Ayora, it is possible to find dishes with lobsters smaller than the minimum size. During an exploratory tour among the kiosk on October 15, 2021, dishes with two or three small-tailed lobsters were sold for 20 dollars.


According to consulted fishermen, selling undersized lobster is a common activity on Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal and Isabela, the three populated islands that shape Galapagos. In local parlance, they are known as "lobster combos" which precisely consist of two or three small lobsters that are equivalent in weight to one large lobster. In other words, animals that have not reached reproductive maturity are marketed, which has dire repercussions on lobster populations in the reserve.


Walter Bustos, former director of the GNP, points out that the minimum size of lobsters was established to ensure that these crustaceans have reproduced at least once before being caught. "Catching lobsters smaller than the permitted size is detrimental to the fishermen themselves, because it reduces the chances for lobsters to reproduce.”

Some of the Galapagos fishermen also comment that the authority's controls of their fellow fishermen are insufficient. "Lobster fishing is done at night and the landings are in the early morning, but the park rangers arrive at the dock after 8am, when there are no lobsters to check," said a fisherman who asked that his name be withheld to avoid reprisals.



Guardaparque del Parque Nacional Galápagos verifica que la talla mínima de las colas sea de 15 cm. Foto: Cortesía Parque Nacional Galápagos


Dany Rueda, director of the Galapagos National Park (GNP), refutes these claims and emphasizes that the GNP undertakes regular measurements and permanent controls. "The size of lobsters is verified at the authorized docks, one for each island, by personnel of the GNP. If the size is correct, the fishermen obtain a mobilization guide.


With this document the fisherman can sell their catch in restaurants. The GNP monitors also the establishments, during these operatives, the owners must indicate the mobilization guide and from whom they bought the lobsters. With this document, the database verifies if they have the necessary permits," he said.


During field reporting carried out for this article in Santa Cruz and San Cristobal it was found that those who sell lobsters under the minimum size find a black market in places outside the tourist area. Rueda replies that they confiscate undersized lobsters when found.


"We have found small lobsters in the operations. The last controls took place on the first days of October in Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal. The offenders were sanctioned," he said. The found live lobsters were released in the sea and the dead ones and tails were incinerated.


During the 2022 lobster season, the PNG seized, in six operations, on land (in restaurants) 93 lobsters that did not meet the minimum size, while operations carried out at the docks yielded 466 lobsters. Those who catch gravid lobsters or lobsters outside the minimum size face administrative sanctions; if they fish out of season, there are are penal sanctions.


The Galapagos National Park Ranger controls that the minimum size for tails is 15 cm / Credit: Galapagos National Park.


However, in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (San Cristobal Island) and Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz Island), no inspectors were present during the two days that Bitacora Ambiental visited the ports to verify lobster landings and controls during the mornings. Although the GNP Director affirmed during the interview that park rangers monitor fishermen in the early hours, no personnel were present.


This trade of juvenile and undersized lobster is an issue that most people in the Galapagos Islands know about, but few want to discuss in public. The real impact of this clandestine market is unknown.


Detail of lobster catches in Galapagos in 2020 / Source: Galapagos National Park.


Lobster 36 cm long, measured by the staff of the Galapagos National Park. Lobsters with eggs or with smaller sizes that are alive are returned to the sea. Lobster tails smaller than the minimum size are seized and incinerated / Credit: Galapagos National Park.


Farther out at sea, more evidence of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in Galapagos is exemplified by the fish aggregating devices, better known as FADs, which consist of a wooden structure from which hang fishing nets and a container with bait that is tethered to a satellite radio buoy.


This buoy sends information to the vessel about the number and size of fish gathered. When the shoal is large enough, the vessel goes to the site and casts its net (see infographic below). The industrial tuna vessels and the purse seiners use FADs to attract fish in large quantities; they launch the FADs in the southeast of the Galapagos Marine Reserve so that they are dragged into the protected sea by the Humboldt Current.


Once in the marine reserv,e they aggregate fish along until the currents take the FADs out south, bringing with them various species of fish, both commercial, such as tuna, and protected species such as sharks. FADs that are not collected by tuna vessels end up as ghost nets in which marine animals become trapped and die. Other FADs are left drifting within the marine reserve and some become entangled on the shores of the islands. According to WWF Colombia, at least 10% of marine plastic waste is made up of fishing equipment, and between 500,000 to 1 million tons of fishing gear enters the ocean every year.



Planted Fish Aggregating Device in the Galapagos Marine Reserve; on the right is a radio buoy / Credit: Walter Borbor.


Among the many questions raised about FAD, maybe the most important, is that these devices create a false sense of abundance. Studies such as the one published by PEW Trusts in 2011 point out the negative effects: "Over time (FADs) they lead to lower abundance of free shoals... and its obvious the changes in tuna behavior around FADs in the Pacific Ocean".


Illustration showing the operation of the radio buoy and communication with the tuna boat / Source: Marine Instruments

Las radio-boyas tienen una sonda que identifica el tamaño, la cantidad y la profundidad a la que se encuentran los peces que se agrupan bajo el plantado. Fuente: Marine Instruments


Walter Borbor, a fisherman from Santa Cruz, holds the record for the most FADs and radio buoys recovered from the Galapagos Sea. On September 28, 2021, he found FAD No. 50 and radio buoy No. 35.

En este gráfico de Earth NullSchool se muestra la dirección de las corrientes de oriente a occidente en la zona de Galápagos, arrastrando los Plantados (FADs) dentro del área protegida. Si se pulsa el siguiente enlace se observa la dirección de las corrientes.


"In addition to taking the fish tha t we artisanal fishermen are looking for, the drifting FADs are a danger when we sail; at night we do not see them and they have caused damage to fishing fibers that have collided with them," he says with annoyance.


Walter Borbor shows the nets of the first FAD that he removed from the sea in the Galapagos 20 years ago. Despite being exposed to the sun, the nylon is still strong and the net was recycled into the fence of his house, a chicken coop, and several hammocks / Credit: Franklin Vega.


There is no official figure on how many FADs have been collected in the GMR, but because of their frequency, there is an informal trade in radio buoys, which makes it difficult for all devices to be reported or handed over to the authorities. None of the fishermen consulted would provide the name of the buyer of the radio buoys, nor would they provide contact information, or fear of possible consequences.


The fishermen confirmed that a person from Puerto Ayora buys these devices from the fishermen for between US$30 and US$50 each and send them to Manta, where they are delivered to their owners: the tuna vessels owners. These devices when new, might cost, between US$700 and US$1,000 each. However, the most expensive of the system are not these devices but the price paid by vessel owners for the satellite tracking and communication system. In comparison to the cost of the whole fishing operation, the cost of losing the FADs is insignificant.


Alberto Andrade, spokesperson for the Frente Insular, an organization of Galapagos volunteers that promotes the creation of the new Marine Reserve, mentions that hundreds of FADs were collected in the past five years: "I can't give a figure, but I know there are hundreds”. This organization has also participated in coastal cleanups and has found several deteriorated FADs that are reported to the Galapagos National Park.


Walking through the neighborhoods where fishers live in Puerto Ayora, one can see dozens of recycled devices, many as pots made from the base of the radio buoys; others as hammocks made from the nets of the FAD. Meanwhile, an organization that rescues street dogs uses the wooden and plastic structures of these devices to make pet houses.


Rueda affirms that six months ago, due to community complaints, he ordered that FADs be registered in the marine garbage reports, both the ones from the sea cleanup and from the collections that are made by fishermen. "I asked that FADs begin to be registered before disassembling them to rescue their pieces of wood, net or plastic and classify them as marine debris."


Despite the above, Rueda assures that there is not a high number of FADs in the GMR. "So far in 2021 we have collected one FAD at sea and in 2020 there were three reported by the boats that cover the route between Santa Cruz and Isabela islands."


The GNP figures do not correspond to those reported by the Frente Insular for 2021, that shows that 18 FADs and radio buoys have been counted. Another indicator of the presence of FADs are those found in coastal cleanups; in the last one carried out in April 2021 there were 15 collected from only two northern islands. Is worth mentioning, that since 2017, the GNP in coastal cleanups has removed 70.74 tons of garbage, mostly plastics.


Details of garbage collected in coastal cleanups / Credit: Galapagos National Park.


"We know from conversations with Guillermo Moran — a representative of a tuna NGO — that they are going to use ecological FADs which are made from biodegradable materials." Rueda mentioned this as a positive mitigation measure to reduce the environmental impact of these devices in the sea. The Park Director also said that he denied authorization of an agreement with WWF Ecuador that sought to authorize industrial fishing boats to enter the GMR to collect their lost FADs. "[Instead] we ask them to sign an agreement with the local fishing sector so that they are the ones who collect the FADs and deliver them to the industrial fishing boats," Rueda emphasized.

Bruno Leone, president of the National Chamber of Fisheries, one of the most powerful fishing guilds in Ecuador, dismissed criticism of the use of FADs and defends their use by pointing out it is not an illegal activity.


Tunacons, an NGO made up of the six largest tuna companies operating in Ecuador, promotes a campaign with ecological FADs (EcoFADs) that replace the plastic tubes of the FADs with bamboo canes and nets made with hemp fibers.


Andrade criticizes the EcoFads: "The only ecological FAD is the one that is not launched."

"We have collected several EcoFADs in the Marine Reserve. They are used illegally in the protected sea. By throwing them adrift, they constitute a danger for fishermen and all of us who sail in the sea and more at night," he says.

Identifying the owners of the FADs and radio buoys found in Galapagos is an impossible task. Until 2019, these devices had the names of the vessels inscribed on them. Currently, the FADs found only have a numerical code that gives no indication of their owners. Bitacora Ambientalrequested information from Marine Instruments, a Spanish firm, regarding one of the radio buoys, but their response was that this is private information.


Industrial fleets sweep away everything

The Guadalupe River speedboat from the Galapagos National Park tows the Don Gerard V longline vessel on December 15, 2017. The vessel was detained within the Galapagos Marine Reserve with protected species of sharks, registered on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in its hold. A judge sentenced the captain and helmsman to three years in prison and the payment of USD 307,000 as reparation / Credit: Galapagos National Park.


Outside the marine reserve, from mile 41 to 200, industrial fishing is permitted, both by industrial vessels, purse seiners and longliners. Some of these vessels enter the protected sea and it is evident that they fish within the GMR, which is a crime.


According to a report from the GNP, from 2010 to 2020, 52 fishing vessels have been captured in joint operations held between the GNP and the Ecuadorian Navy. Of these, four are industrial tuna vessels, six correspond to fishing vessels that use longlines and 41 are mother vessels (longline vessels that tow fishing fibers, fiberglass boats). All of these "captured" vessels faced an administrative process in the GNPS.


During the same period, 95 unauthorized fishing vessels were detected entering the GMR, but were not detained. The details of the type of vessel were not provided, except for "fishing boats". Rueda indicates that, to know the type of vessel and the sanctions, each of the 95 proceedings instituted would need to be reviewed.


According to Rueda, in 2021 there were no unauthorized fishing vessels entering the GMR and in 2020 there were four. "Ten years ago, the number was higher, there were 15 or 20 a year, but it has decreased. We have a system that can detect changes in course and speed in collaboration with the Ecuadorian Navy. If we detect that they enter the Reserve in remote points such as Darwin and Wolf, which is six hours of navigation away, we can impose sanctions on those ships only with the identification systems (AIS and VMS) because by the time our boats arrive they would already have left."


Walter Bustos recalls two cases of longline vessels in 2017: the María Fernanda and the Don Gerard. "Both vessels had sharks in their holds but determining whether they caught them inside the GMR or outside is practically impossible, as sharks move throughout the sea."


Javier Alarcón, member of the Asociación de Producción Pesquera de Armadores de Manta (ASOAMAN) said that the vessels registered in this fishermen association comply with all regulations. He affirms that in ASOAMAN there are 110 longliners or mother ships for whom they are fully responsible. But he also notes that in Manta there are about 70 to 80 more ships that do not belong to any guild and therefore there is no one to complain to.


In Ecuador, shark fishing is prohibited. However, the trade of so-called incidental fishing or bycatch is authorized. Bycatch does not have a maximum percentage, it can be one or 60% of sharks caught, which is still considered incidental and can be commercialized.

Alarcón refutes the claim that using longlines is synonymous with catching sharks, and indicates that 40 to 50 sharks are caught per trip along with the target fish, which are large pelagic fish: "We look for swordfish and tuna, but only bigeye and yellowfin tuna; neither skipjack nor bonito (that tuna is pursued by purse seiners) and we also catch billfish, wahoo, dorado."


Alarcón acknowledges that some longliners do return to port with more than 100 sharks per trip, but states that this is not the norm. "We are working to decrease shark bycatch with a joint study with Peru. We hope to use a vibrating hook that decreases shark catch. The drawback is the price, each hook costs between 5 and 7 dollars and at least 200 are required for each longliner."


Not only sharks circulate in Galapagos

Near Galapagos, in Ecuador's insular Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), longliners have been detained in possession of drugs and sharks. In September 2021 it was the longliner Popeye; in February, the fishing vessel Portugal; and in October, the Pedalex, just to name a few of those detained from 2020-2021.

The longliners Isabela and Pedalex were seized in an anti-drug operation in Manta on October 29, 2021 / Credit: Franklin Vega.


The longliner Pedalex is a repeat offender. It was already arrested in September 2020 in an operation by the Ecuadorian Navy. In September 2021, its 23-crew members were convicted for transporting 299.4 kilos of cocaine

The record of this longliner includes one more arrest on October 29, 2021. It was detained for the second time in Manta, the larger fishing port of Ecuador. It was one of nine fishing boats detained in an international operation in which the Navy, the National Police and the Attorney General's Office of Ecuador and agents of the United States DEA and other tactical groups participated.

The Pedalex case is emblematic because it portrays part of the illicit business between mainland Ecuador and the sea surrounding Galapagos. During the investigation for this report, 17 handwritten logbooks from the Pedalex boat were accessed; these documents are the official records of fishing and the species and number of fish caught. The fishing logs are classified as "confidential" by the Ministry of Production, the national fishing authority in Ecuador.

Despite these papers being classified; the records correspond to 17 months of Pedalex activity, and it is evident that sharks represent 50% of the catches in relation to swordfish (its target fishery), and the number of sharks is four times greater than tuna.

Still, Alarcón is emphatic that not all longliners are targeting sharks or are involved in illegal businesses. "For some bad elements, we all pay. Most of the longliners have bought the boats with the work of years; in my case, it is the work of my father's whole life: 40 years," he said.

Meanwhile, the figures for shark fin exports from Ecuador continue to grow. The country is one of the world's largest exporters of shark fins. As of April 2021, the country ranked third according to the ABRAMS world trade portal, with a value of two million dollars in exports.


By December 2021, Ecuador dropped to sixth place in the world, despite the fact that the value of its exports had grown to 3.5 million dollars. However, according to data from Ecuador's National Customs Service, between January and September 2021 (the latest data available) 226,554 tons of shark fins worth US$6.5 million were exported from Ecuador. This is double what was exported in 2020.


According to Cristina Cely, a specialist in IUU fishing, shark catches are targeted and disguised as bycatch.

"How is it possible that there is no limit for the wrongly named bycatch? This figure legalizes everything from one shark that dies by accident to the hundreds that are caught by industrial fishing vessels," she concluded. Cristina Cely

Shark fins at Tarqui beach, Manta / Credit: Franklin Vega.


This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network.