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    • Fleet includes fish processing plants, refuelling vessels and colossal trawlers
    • Boats raided the Galapagos Islands’ protected waters throughout the summer
    • They have since moved south and anchored off Peru after international outcry
    • Islands are home to magnificent species first documented by Charles Darwin

    The Galapagos Islands has accused China of ‘raping’ its vitally important fishing waters and stunning wildlife with a fleet of nearly 300 vessels.

    The boats include fish processing plants, refuelling vessels and trawlers which raided the protected waters around the Ecuadorian islands in July and August.

    They are understood to have fished thousands of tonnes of squid, tuna and billfish, vital resources for the local economy, and left a wake of polluting detritus which threatens the lives of magnificent species found nowhere else on Earth.

    ‘This is an attack on our resources,’ Ángel Yánez Vinueza, mayor of the Santa Cruz province on the islands, told the Los Angeles Times. ‘They are killing the species we have protected and polluting our biota with the plastic waste they drop overboard. They are raping the Galapagos.’

    Fishing and other maritime traffic in the Galapagos Islands west of Ecuador on Tuesday morning. Orange boats indicate fishing trawlers – though the Chinese boats have been jamming their GPS systems

    Ecuadorian Navy vessels surround a fishing boat after detecting a fishing fleet of mostly Chinese-flagged ships in an international corridor that borders the Galapagos Islands' exclusive economic zone, in the Pacific Ocean, August 7, 2020

    Ecuadorian Navy vessels surround a fishing boat after detecting a fishing fleet of mostly Chinese-flagged ships in an international corridor that borders the Galapagos Islands’ exclusive economic zone, in the Pacific Ocean, August 7, 2020

    The 'distant-water' fishing fleet pictured from space earlier this year

    The ‘distant-water’ fishing fleet pictured from space earlier this year 

    The archipelago, 620 miles west of the Ecuadorian mainland, is a fragile ecosystem that harbours the largest number of different animal species on the planet.

    In 1979 the natural reserve became UNESCO’s first World Heritage Site.

    The islands are best known for their unique flora and fauna, which inspired naturalist Charles Darwin to write his 1859 theory of evolution, ‘On the Origin of Species’.

    Some species of tortoises, iguanas, birds and fish are found nowhere else. 

    Since 2017, Chinese vessels have been spending the summer months on the outskirts of the protected area of Galapagos, but this year’s fleet was larger than any seen before.

    It was described as ‘like a city,’ a vast flotilla with enough fuel to provide them months of lucrative hauls.

    For the Galapagos, China’s plundering has compounded the economic damage caused by the pandemic which has savaged the tourism industry which accounts for 90 percent of its economy.  

    Two beaches on Bartolome Island in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador

    Two beaches on Bartolome Island in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador

    Ecuador’s navy said last month that the Chinese ‘distant-water fleet’ had gradually left the area and were now operating in international waters off Peru.

    ‘We have done the monitoring and we know that they are in offshore waters off the Exclusive Economic Zone of Peru, in its southern part,’ Ecuadorian Commander of Naval Operations Rear Admiral Daniel Ginez, said in an interview. ‘We know they are there, we have them monitored.’

    ‘With such a large number of fishing boats we have the risk that certain species are diminished,’ explained Ginez.

    ‘We need to identify measures that allow us to avoid the presence of such a large number of fishing vessels, which without a doubt can be classified as vessels that are preying on fishing resources.’

    Environmentalists say this type of fishing takes advantage of species that cross into the high seas from the protected waters around the islands. 

    Some species of tortoises, iguanas, birds and fish are found nowhere else (stock)

    Some species of tortoises, iguanas, birds and fish are found nowhere else (stock) 

    No vessels of the fishing fleet entered Ecuadorian waters while operating near the Galapagos, Ginez said, adding that fuel was supplied by vessels belonging to the same fleet. 

    The fleet’s presence led Ecuador to ask regional organisations for greater control over fishing in international waters.

    Ecuadorean officials have said some vessels turned off satellite communication systems, in violation of applicable fishing protocols.

    China has promised a ‘zero tolerance’ policy toward illegal fishing and has proposed a moratorium in the area near the Galapagos between September and November.  

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