Is over-fishing or plastics the real Chinese threat to the Galapagos Islands?
Necks extended; a dozen dark, elongated bodies bounced on the path a few feet ahead of my sandals. I’d never imagined a pack of baby iguanas could be so skittish, but this was their rookery, their territory, and my looming shadow spooked them. I’ve seen scaly, grey iguanas lounging on walls and sidewalks in Mexico and the Bahamas but here, in the Galapagos Islands, the adults are a phenomenon to themselves. Brightly colored, prehistoric silhouettes slithered across each other’s bodies, if they moved at all, and we saw them on island after island.
I tracked one while snorkeling through pristine shallows too. Flashing back to Godzilla movies, the swishing tail and spiky crest made me cautious of getting too close. These are real time dinosaurs, descendants of ancient genetic pathways and protected rigorously throughout Ecuador. Many species are watched over. Several species of turtles are rebounding from the edge of extinction after Spanish pirates captured and stacked thousands of them upside down in their holds. Hungry Spaniards left goats on the islands to propagate without an inkling that they’d decimate local vegetation. Tiny birds mesmerized naturalist Charles Darwin who discovered their special place in balancing populations of insects.
Conservation, protection and control have led to limits in the number of tour boats big and small, the number of land visitors, and strict boating prohibitions. Those are a few reasons I found recent headlines about the buildup of Chinese fishing fleets off the coast of the treasured islands deeply disturbing. While most people are focus on the fishing, I find it more disturbing that:
Chinese fishing may be regulated but their garbage is not.
The islands, which lie over 200 miles away from mainland Ecuador, have been a center piece in the country’s efforts to manage over-tourism during the past decades. No flights land directly in the islands, which helps maintain conservation efforts. Small planes and luggage are sprayed with disinfectants and each international visitor pays a fee to help support the efforts. Even the number of native Ecuadorians are restricted for the expensive excursion. Those who work the islands, like Galapagos Park Naturalist, Hanzel Martinetti who led nightly talks and daily walks as the government appointed naturalist for our Sea Star cruise, spend months away from families. Supply vessels are strictly regulated as well. Garbage is barged away to dumps on the mainland.
Every country has jurisdiction of its sovereign waters within a 200-mile zone. Beyond that, international waters stretch across the Pacific and are regulated by international agencies. The largest meets once a year and agreements are made by consensus or not at all. IATTC, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, regulates species like Skip Jack and Yellowfin Tuna that the Chinese long lines and mid-ocean trawlers primarily harvest.
Reports about massive fishing close to the islands is a concern but I wanted to get specifics and not just jump into media rhetoric or politicizing of Chinese actions.
My life partner is a sea urchin fisherman and founder of Catalina Offshore Products in San Diego, California. Over 40 years, Dave Rudie has been an active member of many fishing management boards and councils, a proponent of sustainable fisheries practices and full utilization of seafood. He floods me with information anytime I have a question about Pacific Ocean fishing. You’ll find his links to my sources at the end of this article.
Through Dave’s expertise and concerns I’ve had the good fortune to learn about fishing and I’ve written several award-winning articles about seafood and aquaculture developments for San Diego Edible Magazine. All of it makes me sensitive to headlines and discussions. Other than a personal interest in the sustainability of what I eat and intense love for scuba diving, I have no professional or financial entanglements with fishing issues.
I was on a dive trip in the Philippines just before Duterte was voted into office. There was a lot of news to catch up on after being WiFi bereft on a live-aboard boat in the middle of the Sula Sea for a week. English news outlets reported alarming stories about Chinese encroachments in the South China Seas between the PRC, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Chinese vessels were intimidating Filipino fishermen and blocking them from traditional fishing areas. There was a lot of hand wringing but international governments did little to limit the incursions on shoals, reefs and sandbars. Since then several of those buildups have been weaponized with landing strips and military. Those actions do little to instill confidence that recent intensified fishing fleets will honor international boundaries or care for the environments they are overtaking.
Dave Rudie would say I’m mixing up issues and he’d be partially right. I know how startling it is when you first realize how much fish is being extracted from the seas to feed the world. I have faith that management is in place in the US and efforts are underway to educate and create sustainable practices across the planet. No fisherman wants to harvest himself out of a livelihood. However, the Chinese government heavily subsidizes their fleets. They‘re rewarded for filling their holds as much as possible but that isn’t the only alarming issue for Ecuador.
Little attention is being given to the tons of plastics overtaking Galapagos Islands during the fishing season and it will stay long after. Chinese label water bottles are the most damning evidence. I shudder to think what else is floating in the water column.
The waste buildup has increased radically over the past four years and shows no evidence of slowing down. The UK Daily Mail reports that, “In the first three months of last year, 8 tons of plastic waste was collected in the Galapagos, compared with about 6.5 tons in 2017.” That plastic is the greatest threat to the islands’ iguanas, tortoises, birds and fish; to the livelihoods of the local people, and to those of us who want to enjoy the splendor of the natural world.