Oceana Analysis Shows China’s Fishing Fleet Swarms Galápagos, then Disappears from Sight - Oceana USA

Oceana Analysis Shows China’s Fishing Fleet Swarms Galápagos, then Disappears from Sight

The country’s massive distant-water fishing operation fuels speculation of suspicious activity by a fleet identified for human rights abuses

Press Release Date: December 22, 2023

Location: Washington, D.C.


Cory Gunkel, Megan Jordan | email: cgunkel@oceana.org, mjordan@oceana.org | tel: Cory Gunkel, 202.868.4061

A new Oceana analysis released today shows that China’s massive distant-water fleet flocks to the waters surrounding the Galápagos Islands, then frequently disappears from public view by appearing to disable public tracking devices.  

Oceana’s analysis shows that, in the area surrounding the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the Galápagos, vessels flagged to China primarily fish* for squid. The country’s fishing fleet was identified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing activity and human rights abuses in its 2023 biennial report to U.S. Congress. The United States imported more than $686 million worth of squid from China and Hong Kong over the past five years.  

In addition to vessels flagged to China disabling their tracking devices, Oceana’s analysis documents China’s fleet engaging in potential encounter events with other vessels known as transshipment. Transshipment occurs when fishing vessels meet with refrigerated cargo ships at sea to transfer their catch instead of coming into port, which can hide illicit activity by mixing legal and illegal catches. While not illegal, transshipment is often an additional risk factor associated with IUU activity. Crew members can also be exchanged during transshipment events, which is cause for major concern around forced labor practices. The amount of unregulated fishing activity around the Galápagos, and the number of times vessels flagged to China appeared to disable their public tracking devices, far surpassed that of vessels flagged to any other country that appeared to fish in the area. 

Oceana analyzed the activity of Chinese-flagged fishing vessels in the EEZ around the Galápagos Islands using Automatic Identification System (AIS) data from Global Fishing Watch (GFW),** an independent nonprofit founded by Oceana in partnership with SkyTruth and Google. AIS devices transmit information such as a vessel’s name, flag state, and location.  

Oceana’s analysis of fishing vessel activities between January 1, 2021, and August 31, 2023, found that: 

  • A total of 510 fishing vessels flagged to China appeared to fish within 200 nautical miles of the Galápagos border – more than triple the amount of vessels flagged to other nations in the same area. Chinese-flagged vessels made up nearly 75% of vessels in the area during this time. 
  • Vessels flagged to China in this area had 53 instances where they appeared to vanish at sea, or “go dark,” from public tracking systems for nearly 27,000 hours near the Galápagos border.  
  • Nearly every vessel flagged to China in this analysis had a potential encounter, or transshipment, event. 
  • One squid jigger flagged to China appeared to participate in multiple encounter events that allowed it to stay out at sea for almost two years, or 637 days. This vessel had 25 potential encounter events with carrier vessels during this period.  
  • Most (94%) of the Chinese fishing vessels were squid jiggers, which accounted for an apparent 134,000 hours of fishing. This concentration of vessels made up nearly 69% of China’s entire distant-water squid fishing fleet. 

“China’s colossal distant-water fleet is monopolizing the world’s oceans. This fleet is emptying the waters surrounding the Galápagos of marine life, disappearing from the public eye, and fueling unregulated fishing practices beyond the horizon,” said Oceana Campaign Director Dr. Max Valentine. “The United States imports a significant amount of seafood from China, and there’s no guarantee that what reaches American plates came from safe and responsibly sourced practices. In fact, there’s no guarantee that it was not caught through unscrupulous activities at sea. China’s intense fishing operations around the world not only raise serious questions about the fleet’s impact on the oceans, but also on the United States’ tacit participation in supporting potential human rights violations and IUU fishing activities.”  

China is by far the world’s largest fishing nation, per a recent Oceana analysis, with a distant-water fleet comprised of more than 11,000 vessels that appeared to fish more than 9.9 million hours worldwide between January 1, 2021, and August 31, 2023. The sum of the next four largest fleets (Tawain, South Korea, the United States, and Japan) is still less than the total number of distant-water vessels flagged to China.  

Oceana calls on governments like the United States to require expanded transparency at sea and traceability of imported seafood to help verify that seafood is safe, legally caught, responsibly sourced, and honestly labeled. 

“It is outrageous to think that our country is helping prop up IUU fishing and potential human rights abuses at sea, either explicitly or implicitly,” Dr. Valentine said. “It’s beyond time for the U.S. government to pass stronger legislation so Americans can be confident that our seafood dinner does not come with a side of human rights violations.” 

To learn more about Oceana’s campaign to increase transparency at sea, please click here

*Any and all references to “fishing” should be understood in the context of Global Fishing Watch’s fishing detection algorithm, which is a best effort to determine “apparent fishing effort” based on vessel speed and direction data from the Automatic Identification System (AIS) collected via satellites and terrestrial receivers. As AIS data varies in completeness, accuracy and quality, and the fishing detection algorithm is a statistical estimate of apparent fishing activity, therefore it is possible that some fishing effort is not identified and conversely, that some fishing effort identified is not fishing. For these reasons, GFW qualifies all designations of vessel fishing effort, including synonyms of the term “fishing effort,” such as “fishing” or “fishing activity,” as “apparent,” rather than certain. Any/all GFW information about “apparent fishing effort” should be considered an estimate and must be relied upon solely at your own risk. GFW is taking steps to make sure fishing effort designations are as accurate as possible.  

**Global Fishing Watch, a provider of open data for use in this article, is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing ocean governance through increased transparency of human activity at sea. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, which are not connected with or sponsored, endorsed or granted official status by Global Fishing Watch. By creating and publicly sharing map visualizations, data and analysis tools, Global Fishing Watch aims to enable scientific research and transform the way our ocean is managed. Global Fishing Watch’s public data was used in the production of this publication.