• Franklin Vega

Tuna fish in Ecuador: 85% come from open seas

Most of the world's tuna catch comes from international waters, reports the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an area of the ocean that has no regulations to prevent overfishing and its subsequent negative impact on the human food supply and marine ecosystems.

Tuna was unloaded from a tuna vessel in the harbor of the port of Manta. Photo: Manta Authority Port

Ecuador, according to the National Chamber of Fisheries (CNP by its acronym in Spanish) and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), has the largest tuna fleet in the Pacific Ocean and the second biggest tuna industry worldwide after Thailand.


Bitacora Ambiental performed an analysis of the available data on Ecuadorian tuna imports from the Central Bank, the National Customs Service of Ecuador (SENAE by its acronym in Spanish), the Public Institute of Aquaculture and Fisheries of Ecuador (IPIAP by its acronym in Spanish), the IATTC, and the CNP.


The principal finding is that 61% of the tuna that Ecuador handles from its fishing and imports comes from international waters whose origin is poorly documented; there are only records for 111,000 tons of the 308,000 imports declared by the CNP.

Put another way, the import data accounts for only a third of the catch the fishing companies declared. A sample of lake data: there are no records of 200,000 tons of tuna worth 340 million dollars and it is unknown where they were caught.


Ecuadorian tuna vessels fished a total of 288,612 tons of tuna in 2021, according to IPIAP and 85% was fished in open seas. With the little data available, it is established that most of the tuna (both imported and what the Ecuadorian tuna fleet catches) comes from the high seas, fished outside the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).


There are no exact figures on the volume of tuna, nor about the incidental fishing of sharks, manta rays, turtles, and dolphins. Available official data is erratic or unavailable and more certain numbers are only known by the industry. Here is what is known:

Tuna vessel “Carmela” in the harbor of the port of Manta. Photo: Franklin Vega


Not only China, half of the tuna that Ecuador processes originate in international waters

FAO indicates that Ecuador's fishing fleet catches approximately from 4% to 5,8% of the world's total tuna. However, if the imports of frozen tuna for processing are added to this figure, FAO's assessment is an underestimate. There is no detailed information on tuna imports but in 2016 the country was the world's third largest exporter of canned tuna and loins, with a 9.7 % share, after Thailand and China, according to data from Ecuador's Ministry of Production.


Three species of tuna are either fished directly from Ecuador’s waters or the high seas: skipjack (Katsuwonus pelamis), yellowfin (Thunnus albacares), and bigeye (Thunnus obesus), according to reports from the National Chamber of Fisheries (CNP) and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC).


"The country is cataloged as a world tuna leader because of its vast fleet (107 vessels) and processing capacity," declared Bruno Leone, president of the CNP, to Bitacora Ambiental last August. Leone states that the Ecuadorian tuna industry fishes an average of 250,000 tons of tuna per year and imports a similar amount. The tuna is mostly canned and exported to Europe, the United States, and several countries in South America, especially Colombia. Leone cited that of total tuna production, 80% is exported and 20% is for local consumption in Ecuador. According to CNP data, in 2021, Ecuadorian vessels fished 272,678 tons of tuna; and in addition, 308,760 tons were imported. There is no exact information about whether what is consumed in the domestic market is imported from other countries or comes from the high seas since a traceability system is not implemented although Ecuadorian fishing law states it should be.



https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/10794171/

Figure. Ecuadorian tuna fleet size is about other national fleets in the West Pacific.

Tuna vessel “Almirante” in Manta, Ecuador. Photo: Franklin Vega

It is almost impossible to know the detailed origin of all imported tuna because there are no rigorous public records in Ecuador. It is only possible to identify the origin of imports that are registered with the Central Bank (BCE by its acronym in Spanish) and the National Customs Service of Ecuador (SENAE by its acronym in Spanish). According to Bitacora Ambiental's large analysis of BCE and SENAE’s 2021 data, around 65% of imported tuna comes from international waters and the remaining 20% comes from the Solomon Islands, Australia, Spain, and 30 other countries. The imports registered by these institutions correspond to 108,979 tons. This is a third of what the total imports declared by Bruno Leone, Chairman of CNP (listed as 308.760) which reveals incoherence between the public data and CNP’s data. Furthermore, the remaining tons are unregistered and their origins are unknown. In this article published in Bitacora Ambiental, the inconsistencies of the official data are shown.

If the SENAE data is analyzed, it is shown that a total of 108,979.30 tons of tuna were imported in 2021 for a value of 195,771,131.62 dollars. The following graph shows the total imports. The rest is distributed in small amounts and from places as distant as Nauru, a tiny island country in Micronesia, northeast of Australia of only 21 square kilometers, or the Seychelles Islands.


https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/11623435/


But to appreciate the difference between what comes from international waters and other countries, it is better to consider the percentages as shown in the following figure.

https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/11674512/


The 2021 data from the Public Institute of Aquaculture and Fisheries of Ecuador (IPIAP by its acronym in Spanish), coincide with data from SENAE customs, regarding the origin of the fish caught by Ecuadorian tuna vessels (not to be confused with imports). The IPIAP figures show that 85% of the tuna caught by the Ecuadorian tuna fleet comes from the open sea or international waters. The remaining 15% comes from the legal EEZ (See figure below).


In summary: the Ecuadorian tuna fleet fished with its boats 245,722 tons in international waters. In addition, the tuna industry imported 308,760 tons, but there is only a record in SENAE of 111,000 tons; of which 69,000 come from international waters or the open sea.


In short, there are no records of 200,000 tons of tuna worth 340 million dollars and it is unknown where they were caught.

Leone ratifies these figures with a short phrase: “We fish up to the 150 longitude degrees meridian, which is the allowed limit of the IATTC.” The following map shows the area controlled by the IATTC, which corresponds to the area in yellow and covers approximately one-third of the Pacific Ocean. As a reference, the meridian 150 crosses Caroline Island (Kiribati) and Moorea island (French Polynesia). The Ecuadorian tuna fleet can operate in all these areas and the IATTC controls the tuna fishing boats. In the case of the IATTC, there is no quota for yellowfin tuna, but there is for bluefin tuna. Other fisheries like those dedicated to squid, aren’t regulated.

Source: IATTC at https://www.iattc.org/es-ES/About/Convention


International waters: “No man’s seas”

The book "The Outlaw Ocean” by Ian Urbina details the crimes that are committed in international waters. This publication details multiple cases of abuses that occur outside of countries' legal Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), also known as open seas or high seas, that begin at nautical mile 201, just after the limits of the EEZs.


EEZs are the marine areas that extend from the coasts of each country and, in the case of islands or archipelagos, the sea surrounding them. In Ecuador, there are two EEZs: one continental and the other around Galapagos. Everything beyond the EEZs is open waters or high seas.


On open seas there is no international regulation imposed on fishing, therefore inside the vessels only the captains' rules and the laws of the country where they are registered apply. After fishing on open seas captains simply must record their journeys in “international waters”. The high seas are “no man's seas” thus there is no obligation to respect rules, simply because there are none for humans or marine life.


There are some regulations for specific species like tuna. The Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) regulate the tuna fisheries in the Pacific with the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) and International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which establish quotas and closed seasons for certain species of tuna.


The following map shows the area handled by the IATTC:

Source: IATTC at https://www.iattc.org/es-ES/About/Convention


The RFMOs maintain regulations for each species, like the IATTC with tuna, but do not protect the entire ecosystem or indicate how to prevent overfishing more holistically. The South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO) is an attempt to protect the sea. Ecuador has been part of the SPRFMO convention since May 2015, along with 15 other countries, including China and the United States. The objective of the SPRFMO is “the conservation and management of straddling fishery resources in the high seas of the South Pacific Ocean.''

Reviewing the documents of the SPRFMO, there is no information available on tuna species, as since January 2022 they have had an agreement with the IATTC about the exchange of information. In other words, the tuna is under the analysis of an international commission such as the IATTC. SPRFMO has information about squid (Dosidicus gigas), Jack mackerels (Trachurus spp.) Mackerels (Scomber spp.), and Orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus).


The following map shows the area handled by the SPRFMO:

SPRFMO map published on Twitter by the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry in January 2021. Image: Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry


Transshipment facilitates overfishing and illegal fishing

Urbina narrates an activity known as transshipment, which consists of the transfer of cargo or fish while the vessels are still in international waters. Many countries' legislation prohibits such transshipments but Chinese law does not, as stated by Urbina.


“Transshipment poses a significant problem because so much of it takes place out of sight and reach of authorities… The financial impact of illicit transshipping is significant. In the western and central Pacific Ocean alone, experts estimate that US$142 million worth of tuna and tuna-like products are moved in illegal at-sea transshipment each year. To make matters worse, the lack of transparency can foster conditions conducive to other criminal activities, such as trafficking in weapons, drugs, and people.” says the report Transshipment Reform Needed To Ensure Legal, Verifiable Transfer of Catch from PEW Charitable Trusts.


Transshipment in the high seas. This photo shows the transfer of fish from a fishing vessel to a cargo (reefer). Photo: PEW


Thus, Chinese fishing vessels (among others) never have to leave international waters; instead, they send fish in refrigerated cargo ships while receiving supplies such as food and fuel, and sometimes years pass without reaching land. In this link, Global Fishing Watch shows the impact of transshipment.


This practice drives overfishing since the vessels do an infinite non-stop catch, because every time the storage capacity is full, the vessel does not have to return to the port. Instead, the catch is just transferred to a secondary logistic fleet in China.


As per FAO’s report “Global trends in the state of the world’s marine stocks, 1974-2019” 30% of the world’s marine stocks are overfished.


The following graph shows how transshipment is carried out in the open sea and some ports.

Image: PEW Charitable Trusts 2018


During this time, the crew cannot return to their countries of origin, which is considered a type of slavery in the 21st century. As well, information on volumes and incidental bycatch of marine life remain hidden. This procedure is better detailed in an earlier interview with Bitacora Ambiental.


In the case of Ecuador, transshipment is prohibited by Ecuadorian laws, but the main evidence that it happens anyway is related to the Chinese fleet and the vessel Fung Yuang Yu Leng which was caught in the Galapagos in 2017 with a load of three fishing vessels. Every year about 300-500 Chinese fishing vessels are stationed in open waters just at the border of the Ecuadorian EEZ in the Galapagos. They likely prefer this area because of the abundance of sea life.


Max Bello, biologist and marine policy expert at Mission Blue, a non-governmental environmental organization that mission is to inspire action to explore and protect the ocean, points out that “60% of the world's oceans correspond to the high seas, which does not have any mandatory international regulation to protect sensitive ecological areas that are important feeding places for wild and commercial marine species. In this sense, in the absence of regulation, most fishing fleets seek these open sea areas.”


It is relatively easy for an industrial vessel to reach the high seas. In Ecuador, the tuna fleet and long-line vessels fish in open waters. The difference with the Chinese fleet is the Ecuadorian fleet does not have a secondary logistic fleet since transshipment is prohibited. All Ecuadorian vessels and boats return to the harbor to unload their fishing. According to the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), the Ecuadorian fishing fleet comprises 107 purse seine vessels, 22 large longlines, and about 320 mother boats longliners.


For Milko Schvartzman, an activist against Illegal Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IUU), the waters of the Pacific Ocean in South America are an example of how the open ocean lacks protection outside of the countries’ EEZs, as he noted in a past interview with Bitacora Ambiental. In this area, there is massive fishing of giant squid (Dosidicus gigas) by the international fleet, mostly ships from China. In August 2022, this fleet was 35 miles from the limit of the Galapagos EEZ. This was announced by Schvartzman, who believes that “although the vessels target squids and catch few bycatch species, they are highly destructive. Squids are part of the food chain of other species such as sperm whales and dolphins. The impact on the ecosystem is notorious. It is an unreported and unregulated fishery".

In the case of the Galapagos, Cristina Cely, an IUU fishing activist, along with a group of environmental NGOs, presented in 2021 a formal request to the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry to act against the presence of the international fishing fleet near the Galapagos. This request recalls that the vessel Fung Yuang Yu Leng was caught with 300 tons of sharks. To this day, there has been no response from the Ecuadorian authorities. The Chinese fishing fleet remained 200 miles from the insular EEZ in 2021 and only 30 miles away in 2022 according to reports from the Ecuadorian Navy.



Map showing, circles with orange lines depict the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in the West Pacific. In the white line is the EEZ of the Galapagos. Everything outside the EEZs is considered high seas. Source: Global Fishing Watch.


“Between 2017 and 2021, due to the presence of the international fleet on the high seas, together with the Galapagos EEZ, the Ecuadorian authorities were required to inspect international ships, but the response of the Navy officials was instead that outside the EEZ they had no jurisdiction,” Cely recalls.


That argument was dashed on September 15, 2022, when for the first time a US Coast Guard ship boarded three Chinese-flagged ships. This is the first instance of IUU fishing curtailed under the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO). This agreement is mandatory for the 16 countries that comprise it and it is the first time that SPRFMO has been applied at sea.


When an international agreement like the SPRFMO is recognized, it becomes part of the legislation of each country and its compliance is mandatory with the same rigor as a law. For this reason, the first intervention of the United States Coast Guard offers an alternative to control the fishing on the high seas. In addition, in February 2018, the international measures of the SPRFMO became European Law.

“Between 2017 and 2021, due to the presence of the international fleet on the high seas, together with the Galapagos EEZ, the Ecuadorian authorities were required to inspect international ships, but the response of the Navy officials was instead that outside the EEZ they had no jurisdiction,” Cely recalls.

That argument was dashed on September 15, 2022, when for the first time a US Coast Guard ship boarded three Chinese-flagged ships. This is the first instance of IUU fishing curtailed under the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO). This agreement is mandatory for the 16 countries that comprise it and it is the first time that SPRFMO has been applied at sea.


When an international agreement like the SPRFMO is recognized, it becomes part of the legislation of each country and its compliance is mandatory with the same rigor as a law. For this reason, the first intervention of the United States Coast Guard offers an alternative to control the fishing on the high seas. In addition, in February 2018, the international measures of the SPRFMO became European Law.


US Coast Guard crew boarding one of three Chinese-flagged ships south of the Galapagos Islands on Sept. 15, 2022. Photo: US Coast Guard.




No data on international catch, no traceability for the Ecuadorian fleet

In Ecuador, the registration of imports from international waters is a problem for the fishing industry, as it weakens the traceability of its catch since no exact location is registered. Leone recognizes that the title of the administrative data “imported from international waters” must change. “That is one of the proposals to improve fisheries management in Ecuador. We have asked that imports no longer be registered as coming from international waters; whoever imports fish must demonstrate that they have complied with all the legal requirements of their RFMOs (Regional Fisheries Management Organizations) and we hope that this will soon change in the way fishing is registered.”


RFMOS are intergovernmental fisheries bodies or agreements with the authority to establish conservation and management measures for high-seas fisheries. They have the power to set catch and fishing effort limits, technical measures, and control obligations.

“But in practice, the RFMOs are controlled by the fishing industries; the entire region is sold to the industry,” says Randall Arauz, scientist and marine conservationist in Costa Rica.


Luis Villanueva, an economist from Mexico and specialist in fisheries issues, explains: “Although there are certain institutions and regulations on tuna fishing by the regional fisheries management organizations (RFMO), they are not mandatory for member countries in all cases. For this reason, in open waters, the scope of said regulations may be low or null. Even when fishing quotas are established for some species, as is the case for bluefin tuna within the framework of the IATTC, for example, countries like Mexico have exceeded their fishing quota without really having any consequences. This same organization has not imposed limits on the catch of yellowfin tuna.”

Still, despite these concerns, Leone is confident that with changes such as improved control activities, the Yellow Card that was imposed on Ecuador in 2019 by the European Union for not controlling Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing properly will be lifted.

Another problem is that detailed information on fishing in Ecuador is not freely available, not even for the tuna industry which is under greater scrutiny. Only partial records of tuna fishing and imports are found in Customs, the Central Bank, and the Ministry of Production. The data among these institutions are not consistent; this might be because of a lack of data sharing or proper updating. When Bitacora Ambiental asked the Minister of Production, Julio José Prado, about this evident problem with the information, especially regarding species conservation, he didn’t answer.


There is also no official and complete public data on bycatch, which are the species that are caught along with tuna such as sharks, manta rays, sea turtles, and other commercial fish species such as dorado (Coryphaena hippurus), wahoo (Acanthocybium solandri) and sailfish or billfish (Istiophorus platypterus).


The RFMOs are oriented toward target fishing management such as tuna. These bycatch species are recorded marginally and are not managed, they are only counted. RFMOs are not charged with the protection of vital species such as sharks or whales. They only regulate catches of commercial species such as tuna in the case of IATTC or squid for SPMRFO. However, the impact of tuna fishing on juvenile sharks has been documented in IATTC reports. While it is true that it is the longliners that catch the most sharks, the use of Fishing Aggregating Devices (FADs) also impacts shark populations. We will expand on this in the next story.

In the meantime, Randall Arauz, scientist and marine conservationist in Costa Rica, spoke about the growing threats to sharks, an endangered species. “We know that shark populations in the world have fallen by 72 percent. There are shark species in extreme danger of extinction and their indiscriminate fishing affects the balance of the ecosystems, as they play a vital role in maintaining healthy populations along oceans' food chains.” In other words, sharks contribute to the preservation of fish populations, including tuna, which is essential to keep the fishing industry profitable.


There are some indications of the overfishing of tuna. Pew Charitable Trusts has exposed data on the overfishing of bigeye tuna, especially because of the use of (FADs).


FADs consist of a wooden structure from which fishing nets hang and a container with bait that is tied to a satellite radio buoy. This buoy sends information to the vessel about the quantity and size of the congregated fish; when the school is big enough, the boat goes to the spot and casts its net (watch this video to see how FADs work).

Bitácora Ambiental has requested the Ministry of Production, in charge of regulating fishing in Ecuador, for details and quantification of incidental fishing of sharks and other species several times, but no response has been received.

It is known from Leone's statements that bycatch in the tuna industry is 1.8%, which considering 2021 data is equivalent to 4,909 tons of fish other than tuna. Of this value, how much corresponds to sharks and other species? Leone's answer is: “almost nothing because most of that 1.8% is mahi-mahi, wahoo…”

Given the silence of the authorities on the bycatch figures, we only have the word of the president of the National Chamber of Fisheries and the documents found in official data sets like the IPIAP, Central Bank, or SENAE that present a complete picture. Given this situation, the question arises as to whether in Ecuador there is in place a “regulatory capture”, which refers to a mechanism by which a sector that should be regulated ends up controlling the authority itself.

Leone replies that no, it cannot be said that there is regulatory capture in Ecuador on fishing issues. “That comment is quite unfair. Because while it is true that we have a very good public-private dynamic, in no way is the Vice Minister of Fisheries a ‘yes man. You notice that the Crisis Committee was constituted after October 2019 when we got the yellow card and that has allowed us to move forward, otherwise we would not have been able to. I find the comment unfair, but some people will think the way they want.”.


The specialists know that a true solution cannot be quickly fixed. For Villanueva, the solution to conserve highly migratory commercial species is “ “to protect 30% of the maritime area of ​​each country, and also on the high seas. The UN is moving towards a treaty of the high seas, which would allow the creation of Marine Protected Areas outside the jurisdictional limits of each country. Another option, as long as it is not possible to establish MPAs on the high seas, is the creation of no-fishing zones under the agreement of the ORMPs, to protect key habitats for highly migratory species.”


Gladys Martínez, executive director of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA in Spanish), explained to Bitacora Ambiental that due to the evident impact of overfishing on open seas, the United Nations is seeking to create an international regulation or treaty to establish procedures for the evaluation of the ongoing Environmental Impact Studies as one of the themes of the BBNJ.


The 5th Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) was held in August 2022 at the United Nations in New York and ended unfortunately without agreements, leaving the high seas unprotected.


Marine life will have to wait until the next United Nations meeting to try to get the High Seas treaty approved. Meanwhile, fishing on the high seas is carried out under the criteria and will of each fishing captain.



Bruno Leone, in the center with the wooden oar, at the celebration of the Ecuadorian Fisherman's Day 2021 in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Photo: Franklin Vega


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