A fleet of Chinese “ghost ships” were falsely reporting their location within New Zealand waters while they fished off the Galápagos islands.
Ecuador’s Government raised the alarm last month after a flotilla of around 260, mostly Chinese flagged, vessels arrived in international waters close to the marine reserve.
Stuff can reveal six of the fleet are transmitting false information via their Automatic Identification System transponders, which make them appear to be fishing in New Zealand waters.
According to Global Fishing Watch’s vessel tracking map, they stopped broadcasting this location on Tuesday night.
The arrival of the “floating city” has raised diplomatic tensions between Beijing and Quito. Its presence has also raised the ire of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who accused China of “illegal and unregulated over-fishing.”
China has said this is groundless, and it is a “responsible fishing nation” with a “zero tolerance” policy towards illegal fishing.
Now, New Zealand has been dragged into the international dispute because the vessels are “cloaking” in the waters between the Chatham Islands and a border with the high seas.
The watchdog group Skytruth uses satellite imagery to identify and monitor threats to the environment. It launched the Global Fishing Watch website in 2016.
A Skytruth analyst Bjorn Bergman said: “No Chinese flagged fishing vessels are currently fishing within New Zealand's EEZ [exclusive economic zone, which gives jurisdiction over natural resources].
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“The tracks that are appearing below are in fact from vessels near the Galápagos Islands broadcasting false coordinates.”
Bergman said five of the six vessels were legitimately fishing for squid with authorisation from South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (SPRFMO), an inter-government body in charge of regulating high seas fishing.
The sixth could not be identified.
It’s unclear how the vessels have been able to hide their true location. It’s also uncertain why they’ve chosen to make out that they’re in New Zealand’s waters. But Bergman said it is a pattern identified in over 100, mostly Chinese, fishing vessels.
Marine conservationists argue that overfishing in the region has seen fewer species return to the islands. There is concern about damage to the fragile marine eco-system.
It’s believed ships use bait to lure sharks out of Galápagos waters where they are then plundered.
Ecuador’s navy is on alert for any incursion following an incident in 2017, when a Chinese vessel was seized in the marine sanctuary with a large number of threatened shark species on board. Twenty crew members were jailed.
The volcanic islands inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and were declared a Unesco world heritage site in 1978.
At 133,000 km², the sanctuary is home to nearly 3000 marine species, a quarter of which are found nowhere else on earth.
They include penguins, sea lions, dolphins, whales, blue-footed boobies and hammerhead and whale sharks.
Ministry of Primary Industries Director of Compliance Gary Orr said the agency can track all commercial vessels inside New Zealand’s EEZ in “near real time.”
“We are aware of the positions that these vessels have exhibited, but we are not aware of any verified information which would suggest this is being offset intentionally to misreport their true positions,” he said.
“Noting that four out of five vessels you refer to are on SPRFMO’s Record of Fishing Vessels, and SPRFMO, to which New Zealand is a member, is key to monitoring the location of these fishing vessels or their fishing activity.”
He did not answer a question about whether national fishing vessel tracking data would be added to Global Fishing Watch’s transparency program.
Neither Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash nor Foreign Minister Winston Peters responded to a request for comment.