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Oceans in the balance, but will China play along?

Ecuador is committed to enforcing new rules against overfishing in the expanded Galapagos reserve. But the country’s entanglements with China are knotty.

A Chinese-flagged vessel is anchored on the high seas beyond Ecuador’s territorial waters near the Galapagos Islands on July 19, 2021. In the summer of 2020, hundreds of Chinese vessels were discovered fishing for squid near the Galapagos Islands.Peter Hammarstedt/Associated Press

Snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands reveals a wonderland of creatures: spotted Eagle Rays, hammerhead sharks, sea stars as big as salad plates. Green sea turtles paddle gravely by, as if flying in slow motion. Farther offshore, dolphins, baleen whales, and 40 different species of shark patrol the deep. A fifth of the marine animals in the Galapagos are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else on earth.

The Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, incubator of Darwin’s theories of evolution, are home to one of the most nutrient-rich marine ecosystems in the world. A confluence of cold ocean currents, equatorial weather, and relative isolation sustain a biodiversity unmatched on the planet. But several of the reserve’s iconic animals — from marine iguanas to sharks and whales — are on the “red list” of endangered or vulnerable species maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They are threatened by climate change, which is affecting currents and bringing on more El Niño storm events; by ocean pollution; and, especially, by industrial overfishing.


Earlier this month, the government of Ecuador announced the expansion of the Galapagos marine sanctuary by about 50 percent — some 23,000 square miles — focused on a corridor between the Galapagos and Cocos Island in Costa Rica, where sharks, whales, and other critical marine species migrate. Dignitaries from many countries came to witness the official decree — even former president Bill Clinton was on hand. The announcement is an outgrowth of an agreement forged at last year’s United Nations COP26 climate summit among the governments of Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia to ban long-line and other fishing in the newly protected corridor.

It’s a heartening example of international cooperation in species conservation, but the real challenge is China, whose massive fishing fleets are often spotted just outside already-protected Galapagos waters. China insists its fleets adhere to international regulations, but conservationists have accused the vessels of pillaging the waters, falsifying records, and disabling their tracking devices. The practice of killing millions of sharks just for their fins (considered a delicacy in China) is appalling enough, but long-line fishing techniques can also snare turtles, dolphins, rays, and rare seabirds.


Sharks swimming near a recently discovered hammerhead shark nursery in Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists hammerhead sharks as endangered species that have suffered sharply declining numbers in recent years around the world.Associated Press

Sharks are not cuddly animals, but they are crucial to a healthy marine environment. They keep the food chain in balance, preventing any one species from dominating. The presence of sharks is a marker of robust biodiversity, according to Sylvia Earle, former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who was in the Galapagos for the ceremonies. “What we are doing is altering the nature of the air, the water, the very fabric of life,” she said at an appearance on San Cristóbal Island. “The earth is not as habitable as it was when I was a child.”

Ecuador is committed to enforcing the new rules against overfishing in the expanded Galapagos reserve. But the country’s entanglements with China are knotty indeed. Previous governments took on some $19 billion in loans from China, which has moved aggressively into mines, dams, and oil extraction businesses in environmentally sensitive areas. Ecuador’s economic dependence on China makes enforcing the boundaries of the Galapagos sanctuary a delicate geopolitical dance.


Still, some are hopeful that China can be persuaded to take its place among responsible nations on climate-related issues. Last week, President Xi Jinping, speaking in the context of the Winter Olympics the nation is hosting, promised to “demonstrate our nation’s commitment to building a community with a shared future for mankind.” More to the point, China is hosting an important global meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, scheduled for April in Kunming. Expectations are high that the event signals China’s willingness to take a leadership role.

Despite — or maybe because of — their many enchantments, the Galapagos suffered from years of exploitation by early settlers, pirates, and profit-seekers who disrupted life on the islands, introducing rats, which are a threat to turtles and bird eggs, and slaughtering thousands of giant tortoises, for example. Today, even tourism can have unsustainable effects.

The exquisite balance of ocean creatures in the Galapagos — from the simplest algae to the world’s largest mammals — took millions of years to establish. So, too, are all the people of the globe living in a complex, interdependent system. Everyone has a role to play in maintaining harmony in the natural world. If we can learn the lessons offered by our deepest ocean, we may save the planet yet.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.