Easy scapegoat

Ian Urbina is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organisation based in Washington D.C. In this column, he explains why China is often the scapegoat when it comes to ocean issues.

Words by Ian Urbina
Photograph by Maria Cristina Cely / The Outlaw Ocean Project

Clearly, it is possible to be two things – even contradictory things – at the same time. This is true for China. Recently, the journalism organization I direct published a series of articles revealing that the country’s fishing fleet engages in illegal practices and uses captive labour. But China has also sometimes been an easy target for politically motivated and inaccurate criticism, largely from the West.

In 2020, a journalist based in Santa Cruz, Ecuador, posted a photo on Twitter that purported to show hundreds of brightly illuminated Chinese ships fishing illegally near the Galapagos islands in a protected area. A media avalanche followed. Dozens of news organizations ran articles announcing the arrival of the Chinese armada and warning of the threat it posed to biodiversity in Darwin’s paradise.

A piece in The Guardian cited the risks to “one of the world’s greatest concentrations of shark species”.  One of the largest newspapers in Ecuador ran a story describing the ships as a “stealthy fleet”, which it said was inadvertently catching and killing marine life such as rays, turtles and sea lions.

The Ecuadorian president at the time, Lenín Moreno, filed a protest to Beijing and vowed on social media to defend his country’s national waters. Mike Pompeo, then the US Secretary of State tweeted calling out the Peoples’ Republic of China to be transparent and enforce its own zero tolerance policy on illegal fishing.

But the original tweet was inaccurate. The photo showed the Chinese fleet fishing in Argentinian waters, not near the Galapagos. Not only that, most of the ships were squid-fishing vessels called jiggers, which do not use nets and do not typically catch sharks, unintentionally or otherwise, because their lines are not strong enough.

It wasn’t unreasonable to suspect the Chinese fleet of illegal behaviour. China has a well-documented reputation for violating international fishing laws and standards, bullying other ships, intruding on the maritime territory of other countries and abusing its fishing workers. In 2021, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a nonprofit research group, ranked China as the world’s biggest purveyor of illegal fishing. But even a country that regularly flouts norms and breaks the law can also at times become a victim of misinformation. This is what seems to have happened in the case of the Galapagos tweet.

Such scapegoating creates problems: when China feels that its fishing practices are being unfairly portrayed, it becomes reluctant to engage with the international community on ocean issues. China often pushes back by accusing its accusers of hypocrisy. And sometimes the country is right in such pushback.

Overfishing is not a China problem. Over a third of fish stocks globally have been overfished and the West needs to be careful to take a historical outlook on the issue. Long before China emerged as the world’s dominant fishing power, other countries, including in the West, fished unsustainably.

Some countries, including the U.S. and its allies, capitalize on the fears tied to China. Indeed, this may be part of the reason that the Chinese presence near the Galapagos triggered such a furore after that initial tweet. And yet, the point that got missed in the news coverage was this: the biggest culprits in the decline of shark numbers in Galapagos waters are not Chinese squid-fishing vessels but Ecuadorian and Peruvian tuna long-liners and local net-based trawlers and purse seiners.These boats are far more numerous, their gear is equipped to catch sharks, and in many cases local governments legally permit them to target the animals.

In 2007, Ecuador changed its law to allow fishermen to land and sell fins or meat from sharks caught “incidentally” or by mistake, as “bycatch”. Fishermen can earn up to $1,000 per kilogram for shark fins sold in East Asia. Between 1979 and 2004, shark landings for the Ecuadorian mainland were an estimated 7,000 tonnes per year, or nearly half a million sharks, about 3.6 times greater than those that had previously been reported by the U.N. But the traffic is growing. In 2021, these exports were at a historic high, with 430 tonnes shipped, or the equivalent of more than 570,000 sharks killed.

Many of those sharks are caught by Ecuadorian ships in Ecuador’s waters. Many of these fishing captains rely on fish aggregating devices, more commonly called ‘fads’, which are special buoys built with plastic and bamboo flotsam strung together with old nets. The purpose of fads is to attract fish to one spot, making them easier to catch and greatly reducing the time required to keep boats at sea. Such concentrations of fish in turn attract sharks, making them easier to catch. Ecuadorean ships deploy more fads than those of any other country, according to a study in 2015 by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Sharks are a concern because three-quarters of their species are threatened globally with extinction. Ecuadorian waters around the Galapagos islands have the highest concentration of sharks in the world and are the only location where pregnant whale sharks are known to congregate. The islands, at the epicentre of El Niño and La Niña climatic extremes, are considered a natural laboratory for studying the impacts of climate change on sharks’ diets.

Not surprisingly, the countries catching so many sharks in the region have found it useful to divert the world’s attention to the threats that China’s fishing fleet poses to local populations of marine wildlife. But in this case, according to Manolo Yepez, an Ecuadorian conservationist who used to work in the shark-fin trade, the truth is that the Chinese are not the problem. “We might sell the fins at sea, boat to boat, to the Chinese,” he told me during a conversation in a fishing boat half a mile offshore from Santa Cruz. “But in these waters, we’re the ones, not the Chinese, doing all the catching of sharks.”

Photograph by Maria Cristina Cely / The Outlaw Ocean Project
Issue 37
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This column appears in ISSUE 37: WILD ALASKA of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 37
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_crew
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_crew

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