Growing Chinese appetite for fish threatens Galapagos and South Pacific aquatic ecosystems

Sep 28, 2022 | 2 comments

By David Leonhardt

A single country has accounted for about 80 percent of the fishing in the international waters just off Argentina, Ecuador and Peru this year. And it is not a South American country. It is China.

In recent years, hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels have begun to operate almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week, off the coast of South America. The ships move with the seasons, from Ecuador to Peru to Argentina. China has focused on these faraway waters after depleting fish stocks closer to its own shores.

You can see the scale of this fishing effort in the maps that are part of a Times project by Steven Lee Myers, Agnes Chang, Derek Watkins and Claire Fu.

Chinese fishing fleets often include more than 300 vessels or more.

China’s fishing expansion is part of a much larger story, of course. As the world’s most populous country, and one with an economy that has grown rapidly in recent decades, China has a growing global footprint — economically, diplomatically and militarily. It needs so much fish to feed a middle class that has become vastly larger over the past generation.

China’s rise has brought great benefits to its citizens: Many fewer of them live in poverty. But that rise is also creating problems for the rest of the world. China’s leaders have been willing to flout international law to accomplish their goals. Even when China is following the law, it sometimes harms other countries for the sake of helping itself (which, to be fair, powerful nations have long done).

The fishing expansion is a good example. The Times project focuses on South America, because China’s fishing around the Galápagos Islands has become a flash point. Ecuador’s government accused Chinese boats of fishing too close to Ecuador’s shores, and both local fishing crews and environmental groups are worried that China is depleting local fish stocks.

“Our sea can’t handle this pressure anymore,” said Alberto Andrade, a fisher from the Galápagos, who has organized an effort to expand protections. “The industrial fleets are razing the stocks, and we are afraid that in the future there will be no more fishery.”

Some experts are also worried that China is underreporting how much fish it catches: Suspicious movement patterns suggest that some ships may be turning off their transponders to hide some catches. “The concern is the sheer number of ships and the lack of accountability, to know how much is being fished out and where it’s going to,” said Marla Valentine, an oceanographer with the conservation group Oceana.

These issues apply to more than just the waters off South America. Steven Lee Myers, the lead reporter on the project and a former Beijing bureau chief for The Times, told me that China had also expanded its fishing off the coasts of Africa and South Pacific nations, as well as Antarctica.

“It reflects the global economic reach of China,” Steven said. “Everyone knows it’s a huge and growing economy, despite the latest headwinds, but the idea that it built a commercial fishing fleet like this seems to have huge implications, for the environment, of course, but also diplomacy and geopolitics, even national security across the Pacific — which is why the Trump and Biden administrations both focused on it.”

You can see the project here — including the story of Hai Feng 718, a large carrier vessel that keeps the fishing boats supplied and ferries their catches back to China, so that the boats can keep fishing, without pause.

Credit: New York Times Morning Letter


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