by Anthony James Sangster Robles
Solicitor @ Aquarius Lawyers
Updated July 2021
Recent issues in Ecuadorian territorial waters and the Galapagos Island Exclusive Economic Zone and World Heritage Marine Reserve area have brought to the fore ever-growing concerns over marine sustainability as well as territorial security.
In late July/early August 2020, a fleet of more than 200 vessels flying Chinese flags began operating large-scale fishing enterprises within a small area of international waters between the Ecuadorian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and the Galapagos Reserve’s EEZ. While the vessels left in October 2020, they have returned and expanded their reach, impacting more countries in the region.
Enforcing the EEZ – which stretches for up to 200 nautical miles from either the coast or in federal systems from seaward boundaries of constituent states – varies depending on how international law is implemented by each government. Some governments have sophisticated and well-defined regulatory systems and protocols and have implemented strict fishing and border control mechanisms in their territories. These include mandatory fishing prohibition in certain months, size catch control, and species catch control. To enforce these mechanisms, governments employ police and military forces to the extent available to them.
What happens in less prepared government territories?
Unfortunately, many countries in southern and warmer areas have lacked the political means or enforcement mechanisms to care for their maritime borders with the same rigour as better resourced nations.
Ecuador has a history of poorly managed international affairs and is typically dependant on the guidance and support of major countries. While the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) internationally treaty was adopted in 1982, Ecuador only became a signatory to the treaty in 2012 – despite having one of the most important marine reserves in the world. In addition, the country only fully defined its maritime borders in 2014 when it signed the maritime boundary agreement with Costa Rica.
For the size of the country and the region in which is located, that this important territorial protection took so long to be resolved demonstrates the lack resources available to it.
Therefore, when there was a sudden appearance of fishing vessels, it is not surprising that the Ecuadorian authorities were unprepared. Without an enforcing body to patrol the maritime area or a fleet large enough to do so, it was almost impossible to ensure the vessels did not cross the EEZ or worse, enter the Galapagos Marine Reserve zone, which poses a huge risk to the delicate marine ecosystem within the area.
Diplomatic initiatives were undertaken, and China made some overtures, agreeing to maintain communications with vessel operators and to a fishing moratorium between September and November. While the vessels left the area in October 2020, when marine life exits the Galapagos marine reserve for warmer climates, China’s offer of cooperation does little to nothing to protect the marine species or prevent irregularities with fishing practices.
For instance, the satellite systems of some of the fishing vessels malfunctioned, meaning they were untraceable for some time. Furthermore, some vessels were deregistered and registered again under different names and ownership. China has not provided any assistance to the Ecuadorian government in this regard, and the Ecuadorian government has not announced any further actions to be taken to protect the delicate marine ecosystem from incursions by these vessels in future.
China claims that the fishing vessels adhere to international fishing regulations and standards. However, these standards are not equipped to deal with an area of such marine biodiversity and self-dependency. Migratory species, such as the mako shark, are very susceptible by-catch. Further, the unprecedented mass-fishing of any species in this area could drastically affect the ecosystem and the food supply of other species. It could even have a domino effect in the marine ecosystem of other countries if migratory species are affected.
The role of global marine protection agencies
It is important that this matter be closely observed by the international community. There are mechanisms for such observations, namely UNESCO World Heritage committees which are tasked with protecting the unique marine life and geology of the area. Other agencies need to be alerted to draw public attention to this troubling issue, just as action by Sea Shepherd brought global attention to Japanese whaling vessels.
Of paramount importance is that global marine protection agencies do not allow the distraction of issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic to leave vulnerable nations such as Ecuador underrepresented at global meetings. Non-profit organisations such as Oceania, Greenpeace, The Ocean Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy and OceanCare, to name a few, need to be aware and alerted to lobby on behalf of these nations and the delicate ecosystem that surrounds them.
Global meetings of agencies and organisations need to address the opportunistic crossing into territorial boundaries and look at more effective ways to deal with international waters and sustainable fishing across the high seas.
- UNCLOS 1982
- Germany v Denmark and the Netherlands  ICJ 1
Mr Sangster Robles is supervised by Ms Katherine Hawes, Principal Solicitor, Aquarius Lawyers.