Category Archives: Ocean Governance

Distinguishing Rice from Wrong: Important Lessons from the Hamburg Port Drug Bust of 2020

By Dr. Ian Ralby

In the summer of 2020, the Port of Hamburg, Germany, had one of the largest drug busts in its history. On June 26, a container arrived in Hamburg carrying 1.5 tons of cocaine worth roughly $353 million USD. German authorities discovered the large quantity of trafficked narcotics hidden in sacks of rice destined for Poland. Almost every media report to date has talked about the fact that the vessel that carried these drugs into Hamburg was the Malta-flagged, French-owned CMA CGM Jean Gabriel, and almost every media report to date has noted that the sacks of rice containing the cocaine came from Guyana. Oddly, however, the Jean Gabriel had not been to Guyana in 2020. In fact, since its construction in 2017, it has never been to Guyana. Furthermore, the vessel was already on another voyage to South America by the time the drugs were discovered in Hamburg. This begs the question: what is going on here? 

The short answer is: though the media reports did not clarify this, the container of Guyanese rice was actually transshipped in the Dominican Republic, where it embarked the Jean Gabriel before ending up in Germany, where it was being stored for a time before heading to Poland. A closer look at this case and the confused reporting on it shines a light on three key takeaways that will be important for addressing new trends in drug trafficking. 

The Vessel

Though the CMA CGM Jean Gabriel arrived in Hamburg on June 26, the German newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt broke the story of the bust on August 10. In the days following, many other papers and commentators retold what happened, the most in-depth reporting indicating that the rice came from the Berbice Mill in Guyana, where it left port on May 26. None of the initial stories, however, particularly in the international media, clarified that Jean Gabriel was not the vessel that had picked up the rice from Guyana. Indeed, the media largely made it seem that Jean Gabriel had, perhaps knowingly, taken the drugs from Guyana to Hamburg, and a number misreported that the drugs were found on the ship itself. A closer look at the movements of the vessel, however, helps clarify some of the confusion in this reporting.

This Windward image of the Jean Gabriel’s path between May 26, when the cocaine-filled rice shipment left Guyana, and June 27, a day after the vessel arrived in Hamburg, shows that the ship did not go near Guyana (visible between Venezuela and Suriname on the map): 

Track of CMA CGM Jean Gabriel from May 26 to June 27, 2020. (Image from Windward Predictive Maritime Intelligence, Click to expand.)

Furthermore, examining the port calls during that time, we can see the vessel stopped at the following ports on the following dates, none of which are remotely close to Guyana: 

Date: Port: Duration: 
May 27, 2020 Puerto San Antonio, Chile 2 Days
June 1, 2020 Callao, Peru 1 Day
June 8, 2020 Colon, Panama 11 Hours
June 10, 2020 Cartagena, Colombia 20 Hours
June 12, 2020 Caucedo Andres, Dominican Republic 1 Day
June 23, 2020 Rotterdam, Netherlands 2 Days
June 25, 2020 London, United Kingdom 1 Day
June 26, 2020 Hamburg, Germany 1 Day

Before trying to resolve the uncertainty concerning where the drugs were embarked on the ship, it is worth looking at what happened after Jean Gabriel called in Hamburg. As noted, some media reports, including industry journals, indicated that the drugs were “found onboard a containership docked in the port.” Looking at the movement of the vessel after arrival, however, suggests this was not the case. A day after arriving in Hamburg, the Jean Gabriel was already underway, heading to repeat the route to South America. The following Windward image is of the vessel’s path from June 24, just before it arrived in Hamburg, until August 10 when the story of the drug interdiction broke: 

Path of the CMA CGM Jean Gabriel from June 24 to August 10, 2020. (Image from Windward Predictive maritime Intelligence, Click to expand.)

These two images, plus the list of port calls, cast serious questions about the accuracy of the reporting on this incident. Even the reports themselves are contradictory, some suggesting the drugs were found on the ship, others once it was in storage. By looking at the ship data on Windward, though, we can tell that the container with the cocaine-filled rice sacks was definitely not embarked in Guyana, and it is highly unlikely that the drugs were discovered while the container was still onboard. The vessel does not appear to have been delayed at all, indicating that the container came off as planned, validating the news stories detailing that the container had been in storage awaiting transshipment to its final destination of Poland before the drugs were discovered.

Drug trafficking in containerized cargo has increased in recent years. A third of all drug trafficking is now estimated to be transported in this fashion, but that comes with a difficult question. Given the volume of the cargo being moved – 90 percent of world trade moves by sea – do the ships have any awareness they are carrying drugs? In many cases the answer has been “no,” as the cargo was loaded and unloaded like any legitimate container. This brings up the first key takeaway: As containerized drug trafficking increases, reporting on it needs to be careful not to accuse or make false and misleading claims about vessels and shipping lines. 

The reporting on this matter made it sound like the CMA CGM Jean Gabriel was involved or somehow responsible. Confused reporting can inadvertently cast aspersions on innocent parties. To date, there has been no indication that the Jean Gabriel, its crew, or CMA CGM was involved in this drug trafficking enterprise – the cartel simply took advantage of the infrastructure of global maritime commerce.

That infrastructure is crucial to our economy and our way of life – goods of all sorts, including basic necessities, flow constantly around the world. Therefore, we must be cautious not to assume connections between what is found in a container and the vessel or line on which it is found. Denigrating shipping lines for inadvertently carrying drugs, rather than assisting them in countering the movement of narcotics, serves only to diminish the free flow of maritime commerce and provide exploitable opportunities for drug cartels. We tread that path to our own detriment.

The Container

Having shown that the Jean Gabriel never went to Guyana, the question remains how the problematic container got on board. The answer can be found in the local coverage of the matter. Stabroek News, a Guyanese paper reporting on the response of the Guyana Rice Development Board (GRDB) to the drug bust, went into depth on how the rice got from the Berbice Mill to the point when it left Guyana. The rice came to the port in several different trucks and was loaded into containers for a consignment to FHU Konpack, a Polish import company. GRDB claims to have followed standard operating procedures in checking the quality of the rice at the mill and then fumigating it at the port. It is not clearly stated, but it seems that there were multiple containers of rice, though the allegation is only one of them contained cocaine. As the report indicates, the containers were sealed and documented on May 21 and 22. They were then loaded onto the MV Asiatic Wind, a Singapore-flagged, German-owned vessel that does mostly intra-Caribbean container transfers. 

From following the movement of the vessel on Windward we can see, as was reported, that it left Guyana on May 26 and arrived in the Dominican Republic on June 7. 

Path of the MV Asiatic Wind from May 26 to June 7, 2020. (Image from Windward Predictive Maritime Intelligence, Click to expand.)

On this voyage, it called at the following ports: 

Date: Port: Duration: 
May 25, 2020 Georgetown, Guyana 1 Day
May 27, 2020 Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago 1 Day
May 29, 2020 Bridgetown, Barbados 16 Hours
June 4, 2020 Kingston, Port Bustamente, Jamaica 19 Hours
June 7, 2020 Caucedo Andres, Dominican Republic 1 Day

Given that we also know the port calls for the CMA CGM Jean Gabriel, we can confirm the Stabroek News report that the container disembarked the Asiatic Wind for transshipment in the Port of Caucedo, Dominican Republic, on June 7. That report would also seem accurate, suggesting that the container was loaded onboard the Jean Gabriel on June 13 and set sail that same day for Europe. Once unloaded in Hamburg on June 27, it was stored for onward transshipment to Poland. According to the reports, an intelligence tip alerted German authorities to the possible presence of drugs. Otherwise, the container might have completed its journey without being interdicted. This brings us to the second takeaway from this case: It may be more important to watch the movement of containers than it is to watch the movement of vessels when tracking drug shipments, particularly as container transshipment creates confusion as to the actors who may be involved in the journey of the drugs. 

The news stories around this case, and even some criminology publications, all focused on the vessel that brought the container to Hamburg. The real story is the voyage of the container, as that is how we can determine how the drugs actually got from wherever they originated to Germany. Virtually every international media report mentioned Jean Gabriel. Only the local reports mentioned the MV Asiatic Wind. Even then, there is nothing conclusive to indicate any connection between the vessel and the drug operation, though an important concern is raised below about part of the latter vessel’s voyage. As drug cartels use containerization to move an increasing volume of narcotics, they cannot be allowed to take advantage of general sea blindness and confusion about maritime commerce to obscure their activities. 

Based on the publicly available information, it is impossible in this particular case to conclusively determine where the drugs entered the container. If the container was unsealed and resealed in the process of moving from Guyana to Hamburg – a process known as “rip-on, rip-off,” it would have required a sophisticated and likely quite noticeable operation, most likely in the Port of Caucedo. The container’s seal would have to be removed, the container opened and unpacked, the drugs inserted into the rice sacks, the container repacked, and a fraudulent seal fitted to avoid detection. There is also, as has been the case in other major busts, the possibility that the drugs were embarked and loaded while the vessel was at sea. The vessel tracks of the Jean Gabriel do not indicate any suspicious activity that could account for that. The only feature that Windward shows that could, in other circumstances, be considered suspicious is a change in draft from 11.7 meters to 12.1 meters that occurs between London and Hamburg. There is no anomalous activity to suggest the vessel slowed to pick up anything at sea, so this is almost certainly caused by the change in buoyancy from salt water to fresh water. Based on the movements of the vessel, therefore, it seems unlikely that the Jean Gabriel was engaged in any untoward activity that would indicate involvement in drug trafficking. 

The Asiatic Wind does have one anomaly, however, that bears noting. Before entering the Port of Kingston, the Asiatic Wind, on June 3, inside Jamaica’s territorial sea, made a sharp 90-degree turn and went dark for 12 hours and 36 minutes. This means the vessel was not transmitting on its Automated Information Systems (AIS) during that time, a violation of law unless documented in the master’s log book, and often an indicator – though inconclusive – of suspicious activity. Given the distance traveled from when the vessel went dark to where it reappeared, Windward calculates that 11 hours and 36 minutes cannot be accounted for during that dark period. While it is unclear what happened in that interval, if investigators are unable to find a land- or port-based point of embarkation for the drugs, embarkment at sea is another possibility that cannot be ruled out without further examination. 

Returning to the takeaway about following the container, accurately revealing the story of what happened is not about ignoring the vessels, but about watching their movements in relation to the container at issue. Ultimately, the tip to German authorities, together with the fact that the 1,277 packages of cocaine found in this container were stamped with different symbols, including a cat’s face, the Gallic rooster, and the Ampelmännchen – a red and green German pedestrian crossing symbol – should give ample indications to investigators as to potential sources, traffickers, and buyers. In the process, the full journey needs to be examined, and even this anomaly in Jamaica should be reviewed. And finally, the rice itself may be an important piece of the puzzle. 

The Rice

Using sacks of rice to convey and conceal drug shipments has become an increasingly common phenomenon in the illicit narcotics space. Incidents include the August 2014 discovery of 100 kilograms of ketamine in a container of rice entering Canada from India, the February 2018 interdiction of the MV Sunrise Glory in Indonesia with a ton of crystal methamphetamine in rice sacks, and the September 2020 interdiction of the Maersk Sembawang in the UK with a rice shipment containing over $160 million USD in heroin. 

In 2015, an Argentine case even demonstrated the efforts of drug cartels to fuse the cocaine with the rice to make it harder to detect. Just last year, Suriname – Guyana’s neighbor to the east – saw one of its biggest drug busts in history. A consignment of rice in the Jules Sedney Port in Paramaribo was discovered to have 2,300 kilograms of cocaine hidden inside it, divided among eight containers that were to be loaded on a ship and taken via Guadeloupe to mainland France. The rice merchant whose shipment it was – a 30 year old father of two girls – was arrested on January 8, 2019, and released shortly thereafter. A week later, however, he was found dead on a popular beach in Guyana, murdered by a gunshot to the forehead. 

Even with this catalogue of cases from other parts of the world, involving a variety of drugs, the nexus between rice and cocaine may be most acute in Guyana. On August 13, 2013, officials in the Dominican Republic found 70 kilograms of cocaine in a Guyanese rice shipment. On August 28, 2017, Jamaican officials found 78 parcels of cocaine worth nearly $700,000 USD in a Guyanese rice shipment. On October 30, 2017, Guyana officials found 67 kilograms of cocaine in a Guyanese rice shipment that was destined for Belgium, discovering it before it left their own port. These are just some of the more high-profile cases. 

This frequency of cocaine busts in rice shipments runs in parallel to a broader trend around the world where transnational crime groups and terrorist organizations are turning to benign, ubiquitous goods for income streams. Charcoal, fuel, honey, sugar, and fish are all being used by criminal groups to create income for nefarious operations. But they are also using these benign goods as direct cover for those operations. In the case of the rice, the connection between the rice producer and the cartels should be monitored, as the cartels may seek to buy up and directly own the supply chain, rather than simply control it through duress, manipulation, or payout. The death of the Suriname rice merchant in Guyana should be an indication of how serious this matter is. This brings us to the final takeaway of the incident: While the focus of the interdiction is on the cocaine and its supply chain, a wider law enforcement effort is needed to examine the relationship between benign goods and illicit activities to help ensure that, while drug cartels may use goods like rice to obscure cocaine shipments, they do not end up controlling both the legitimate and illegitimate markets at the same time. 

By creating invisible supply chains of illicit goods amid  supply chains of legitimate goods, cartels can make law enforcement detection and interdiction even more difficult. 


Even beyond the confused reporting and the various transportation dynamics reviewed, there is an overarching indication of criminal mindsets that should be considered extremely concerning when reviewing this case. Criminality is a risk-reward calculus. When the risk is low and reward is high, criminals are in their sweet spot of pursuing profit. The hope is that the interdiction of a shipment serves as a meaningful disruption of the illicit supply chain and deters criminality through a change in the risk-reward calculus. If Guyanese rice has been interdicted numerous times in the past with cocaine, yet it is still being used as a means of transporting cocaine, what does that say about how often it is successful? 

The fact that it is still being used to obscure such large quantities of drugs suggests that in this instance, the risk-reward calculus, or more accurately, the rice-reward calculus, remains in favor of the criminals. Either the cartels are futilely making repeat attempts and hoping for a different result, or law enforcement is blind to the majority of what is moving. Businesses that don’t maintain a bottom line do not survive, so if the drug cartels are still using this tactic after a decade of sporadic interdictions, we have to assume that the majority of the time the criminals are successful.

The November 4, 2020 bust of 11.5 tons of cocaine in a scrap metal shipment that went from Guyana to Belgium further reveals the extent to which cartels feel that stashing extremely large quantities of drugs amid benign cargoes serves their interests. This is a sobering conclusion and should inspire a redoubling of efforts to rethink and reimagine how we approach countering the movement of narcotics and illicit substances. 

Dr. Ian Ralby is a recognized expert in maritime law and security and serves as CEO of I.R. Consilium. He has worked on maritime security issues around the world, and has spent considerable time focused on and was previously based in the Caribbean. He spent four years as Adjunct Professor of Maritime Law and Security at the United States Department of Defense’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, and three years as a Maritime Crime Expert for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. I.R. Consilium is a family firm that specializes in maritime and resource security and focuses on problem-solving around the world.

Featured Image: Port of Hamburg, Germany. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Leveraging NGOs and Volunteerism for Maritime Surveillance Against IUU Fishing

By Trevor Phillips-Levine, Dylan Phillips-Levine, and Walker Mills

As the German U-boat prepared to ascend to periscope depth, the crew was unaware that a Grumman G-44 Widgeon Coastal Patrol aircraft had been shadowing it for the last three hours. It was the summer of 1942 and the Eastern Seaboard of the United States was a battleground. U-boats were stalking and sinking merchant ships transporting vital war materials and U.S. Navy and Coast Guard assets were stretched thin. The two pilots of the Coastal Patrol aircraft, armed with two depth charges, maneuvered into an employment position and dropped their charges.

Notably, the crew and aircraft were not military, but instead part of a civilian volunteer organization. By August 1943, U.S. military assets could adequately cover defense requirements and the Coastal Patrol stood down. While U-boat records do not attribute any U-boat losses to Coastal Patrol sorties, these civilian fliers were very successful in forcing U-boats to submerge, greatly curtailing their ability to attack and communicate.

As strategic competition heats up between the U.S. and China, the U.S. is seemingly at a disadvantage when compared to China’s ability to mobilize and militarize commercial enterprises with plausible deniability like its vast distant-water fishing fleet. In order to adequately counter China’s aggressive overseas fishing fleet, the U.S. should rely on a combination of technology and global volunteerism. Just as Coastal Patrol helped plug a capability gap and hobble German U-boat operations, the U.S. can help counter malign Chinese fishing activities by supporting allies with cheap surveillance networks and capitalizing on environmental volunteerism.            

Commercial Fishing Fleets

Recently, Ecuador raised alarm over the presence of 340 fishing vessels congregating outside the protected waters of the Galapagos Islands. Almost all of them were part of the Chinese distant-water fishing fleet. The situation escalated when many vessels within the fleet turned off their satellite transponders to avoid being monitored and, presumably, the scrutiny of Ecuadorian authorities. Ecuador responded by sending surveillance assets to monitor the flotilla. Unable to adequately monitor such a large flotilla with their own assets, Ecuador requested assistance and intelligence sharing from Colombia and Peru.

Ecuador had reason to worry. In 2017 Ecuadorian authorities seized a Chinese fishing vessel with over 300 tons of illegally fished sharks (some endangered) comprising of roughly 6,600 animals. When Chinese fishermen act aggressively and illegally, it is likely that they have at least some form of tacit government approval considering the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime. Though Beijing denies irresponsible fishing practices, the data suggests otherwise. China has the largest distant-water fishing fleet in the world at over 17,000 vessels. The fishing fleet also receives government subsidies that incentivize private companies and ship owners to expand their fleet and range. China has militarized part of its fishing fleet as part of the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, which can be employed as a paramilitary force in altercations with other national fishing fleets and law enforcement vessels. Beijing uses the Maritime Militia as part of a coordinated effort to challenge maritime sovereignty and conduct surveillance of its neighbors within the “gray zone” where triggered responses are unlikely to rise to the level of direct military intervention. Retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis has argued that China’s distant-water fishing fleet is part of a strategy of “hybrid warfare.” Through “coercive maritime diplomacy,” Chinese fishing vessels assist Beijing in asserting claims in contested waters by using sheer numbers to overwhelm another nation’s ability to enforce their sovereignty. These vessels have been used in disputes against claimants in the South China Sea and Japan. As the immediate peripheral waters surrounding China were depleted of marine life and its growing population’s demand for sources of protein grew, its fleets moved outward.

This outward expansion is being felt globally. On August 8th, 2020, just days after a Chinese fleet appeared off the Galapagos Islands, a pair of Chinese fishing trawlers (Guo Ji 826 and Guo Ji 866) were arrested by Gabonese authorities with over one metric ton of illegally fished fins and rays off the west coast of Africa. In 2016, Argentina sank a Chinese vessel illegally fishing within its economic exclusive zone (EEZ). Global Fishing Watch, using satellite data, showed systemic illegal fishing by Chinese fishing fleets in North Korean waters between 2017 and 2018. Some 1,600 vessels are estimated to have harvested over 160,000 tons of squid from North Korean waters. Like the fleet off the Galapagos, these aggressive fishing fleets usually operated in the “dark” with turned-off transponders, making it more difficult for local authorities to respond. Overfishing in North Korean waters drove scores of fishermen to more dangerous seas. Many were unable to compete with the larger Chinese boats and may have been harassed. These aggressive fishing practices have been linked to over 600 “ghost ships,” vessels that have washed ashore on Japan’s shorelines with the crew missing and sometimes with human remains. Researchers have called it “the largest known case of illegal fishing perpetrated by vessels originating from one country operating in another nation’s waters.”

In many cases, it appears Chinese fishing fleets target waters of nations that lack robust maritime law enforcement capability. A 2015 Greenpeace report monitoring illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing off shorelines in Africa found that Chinese fishing activities “were taking advantage of weak enforcement and supervision by local and Chinese authorities to the detriment of local fisherman and the environment.’”

In both his recent comments and the new US Coast Guard Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported Fishing Strategic Outlook, Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Karl Schultz called IUU fishing a “national security threat.” He said also “[It’s] bigger than catching a few boats with illegal tuna. This is really about the systemic violating of sovereign nation rights. IUU fishing could lead to armed conflict in the future over resources instead of ideological reasons. Separately, the head of US Southern Command, Admiral Craig Faller, called illegal fishing one of the top threats in the Western Hemisphere and noted that China is the most egregious violator. He added, “This [threat] has us focused with a sense of urgency day in and day out.”

Tapping into Environmentalism and Non-Governmental Organizations

During President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address in January 1961, he delivered his famous charge: 

“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

With the Cold War in full swing, Kennedy realized that a whole-of-nation approach was required to effectively counter Soviet expansionism. He also recognized that strength came through alliances and engagement. Kennedy looked to mobilize patriotic young Americans to serve their country in engagement activities within the Peace Corps.

Similarly, young people today are motivated to contribute to global causes with environmentalism being one of the largest (if not the largest) global movements. Numerous environmental and humanitarian organizations, many staffed by volunteers, operate throughout the world. In countering aggressive Chinese fishing practices, the U.S., smaller nations, and environmentalists find themselves on common ground. Couched in environmental rhetoric, governments can enlist the help of volunteers and NGOs to help defend their fisheries and bolster capacity.

Many victims of China’s distant-water fleet lack robust enforcement capability on their own and would benefit from outside support. In this regard, maritime-focused NGOs can offer immense help. The environmental direct-action group, Sea Shepherd, operates a small fleet of ships committed to protecting the world’s oceans. Made famous by the show “Whale Wars,” the Sea Shepherd organization has operated since 1977. The arrest of two Chinese trawlers, Guo Ji 826 and 866, were actually made by Gabonese authorities embarked upon Sea Shepherd vessels. In January 2020, Sea Shepherd signed an agreement with the Attorney General of Ecuador to bolster its enforcement capability against illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. Greenpeace has also been monitoring and reporting on IUU activities with their own fleet of vessels crewed by volunteers.

Sea Shepherd Executive Director Catherine Pruett and Attorney General Diana Salazar Méndez at the official document signing. (Photo via Sea Shepherd)

Volunteer organizations have the ability to make immediate impacts in a significantly shorter time period, at a fraction of the cost, than it would take to stand-up and equip instruments of a nation’s maritime forces for global enforcement duties. Organizations like Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace are crewed by volunteers and operate on donations from private donors spanning the globe. Maritime experts have argued for greater interagency and international cooperation in combating illegal and unregulated fishing before. Similar to the role of Coastal Patrol during WWII, their primary function would be to contribute to regional maritime domain awareness.

Environmental groups have, at times, been at odds with the policies of governments, including the US. In 2013, U.S. courts labeled some of Sea Shepherd’s activities against Japanese whaling vessels as piracy. These activities included aggressive maneuvering, ramming, and throwing bottles filled with noxious liquids. Despite the controversy surrounding some activities that direct-action environmentalists may take, their independence and credibility make them ideal candidates for contributing to a larger network. Additionally, using international maritime law has proven successful in taming some of the more aggressive tactics utilized by direct-action NGOs.

All told, Coastal Patrol volunteers were responsible for 86,685 sorties, spotted and reported 91 merchant vessels and 363 survivors in distress; reported positions of 173 located U-boats, and dropped 82 munitions on 57 U-boats. Today, Coastal Patrol lives on as a U.S. national organization called the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, and performs missions that include search and rescue, airlift, and aerial surveillance assistance for drug enforcement missions. While not an NGO, the Coastal Patrol program arose as a way to alleviate wartime stress on a nation not yet on a full war footing, and demonstrated the significant and immediate strategic effects a volunteer organization can have in furthering a country’s objectives. The U.S. would be wise to find similar ways to leverage the international desire to protect environments.

It’s Really About Surveillance 

“China is OK with its fleets overfishing and engaging in rapacious activities, but it doesn’t like the bad publicity of outright illegality,” stated Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. China aspires to become a global power and one of immense influence. Culturally, shame carries emotional responses of great import to the Chinese people. The result is that Beijing will go to great lengths to save face. As such, countering Chinese malign activities requires spotlighting and documenting such activities through maritime surveillance, at least in the near term, and in waters beyond what it considers its own.

Chinese malign activities are well-documented in the waters of the South and East China Seas, but with respect to fishing the Chinese are even more overt and attempt to bully neighbors into capitulation through numbers and regular incursions. For example, the Chinese Coast Guard and Maritime Militia routinely back up Chinese fishing vessels in confrontations. In one instance a Chinese fishing vessel rammed and sunk a pursuing South Korean Coast Guard vessel in 2016 before fleeing. These behaviors require more robust responses, but for now, enabling Latin American countries with surveillance and enforcement capabilities will help counter Chinese expansion. Through robust surveillance, enforcement assets can be more efficiently deployed to areas that contain violators.

With countries that have closer relationships with the U.S., direct support is possible through law enforcement agencies, the U.S. Coast Guard, and military cooperation. These include providing assets and intelligence sharing. Such assets should include autonomous unmanned systems that allow for broad area surveillance. DARPA’s Ocean of Things concept is very aptly suited to monitor large expanses of ocean for relatively low costs and is similar in function to China’s Ocean-E surveillance network that has been deployed in the South China Sea. While both systems can be loaded with environmental sensor payloads, the ability of the sensor networks to track airborne, surface, and submerged vessels has immense intelligence, law enforcement, and military value.

In Latin America, as it is in other places in the world, the U.S. must walk a more delicate line since interventionist policies of the past are still raw in some collective memories. As Lisa McKinnon Munde aptly pointed out in her essay in War on the Rocks, the U.S. should not seek to lead, but rather enable and allow host countries to “set the pace” of cooperation and its scope. When aiding countries wary of U.S. help, the U.S. should offer support through NGOs that have global footprints.

Some Latin American countries are justifiably wary of U.S. involvement in their affairs and may wish to not participate in interagency task forces headed by the U.S. and operating within their respective EEZs. Governments wary of direct partnerships with the U.S. may more freely accept offers of aid from independent NGOs in enforcing their maritime sovereignty. Leveraging NGOs in these cases may allow for more palatable relationships in the form of indirect partnerships or cooperation in countering Chinese IUU fishing activities. In this way, more assets can be deployed in a concerted effort to monitor, report, and enforce in response to malign fishing activities by Chinese-sponsored enterprises. 


An integrated approach that leverages regional governmental cooperation supplemented by U.S. maritime surveillance resources and NGOs is the only approach that can effectively combat aggressive illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing by Chinese distant-water fleets. Individually, local governments simply do not have the resources to effectively police their massive fisheries by themselves even as they seek to bolster their presence with new, patrol-minded vessels. However, the U.S. in combination with environmental NGOs can help fill the gap.

It is not just about protecting the environment – overfishing and expansion into other countries’ EEZs have a destabilizing impact and could lead to armed conflict in the future over resources. U.S. Coast Guard Commander Kate Higgins-Bloom noted that “The odds that a squabble over fishing rights could turn into a major armed conflict are rising.” It has happened before, and illegal fishing is an unmistakable part of great power competition Because this problem is truly global and affects the waters of many nations, it will require the concerted effort of nations and regional cooperation.

Congress has already asked the U.S. Navy to help fight illegal fishing. With U.S. support, NGOs can expand operations and provide greater monitoring and coverage capabilities. With external support enabling increased maritime domain awareness, smaller navies can more effectively use their assets for interdiction and enforcement. As was the case with the Coastal Patrol, even minor surveillance contributions by civilian groups can significantly unburden naval and law enforcement vessels. NGOs benefit from increased support and promotion of their mission. Meanwhile, the U.S. and humanity writ large can benefit by countering malign Chinese expansion, promoting greater international cooperation, and increased awareness of what is occurring in the world’s oceans.

Trevor Phillips-Levine is a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy. He has flown the F/A-18 Super Hornet in support of Operations New Dawn and Enduring Freedom and is currently serving as a department head in VFA-2. He was previously assigned to Naval Special Warfare as a JTAC and fires support officer in support of combat operations in Operation Inherent Resolve.

Dylan Phillips-Levine is a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy. He has flown the T-6B “Texan II” as an instructor and the MH-60R “Seahawk” in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and 4th Fleet in counternarcotics operations. He is currently serving as an instructor in the T-34C-1 Turbo-Mentor as an exchange instructor pilot with the Argentine Navy.

Walker D. Mills is a captain in the Marines. An infantry officer, he is currently serving as an exchange instructor at the Colombian naval academy. 

These views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of any U.S. government department or agency.

Featured Image: Chinese fishing boat Bo Yuan 1 (Photo via Pierre Gleizes/Greenpeace)

Evolution of the Fleet: A Closer Look at the Chinese Fishing Vessels off the Galapagos

By Dr. Tabitha Mallory and Dr. Ian Ralby

A flurry of news stories in late July 2020 reported on the “discovery” of a “massive” fleet of Chinese fishing vessels in the waters off the Galapagos, which fluctuated to over 350 before the fleet finally left by mid-October to fish farther south. Yet the presence of the Chinese distant water fishing fleet in the area has been expanding for several years. Concerns over the fleet’s illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing have also grown, spurred by the August 2017 arrest of the FU YUAN YU LENG 999, a Chinese-flagged refrigerated vessel found in the Galapagos with roughly 300 tons of rare, near extinct or endangered species onboard, including 600 sharks.

Using data and insight from Windward, a predictive maritime intelligence platform, our analysis examines how this fishing phenomenon has evolved over time and who is behind this increasingly intensive fishing effort. We argue that this fishing activity is the outcome of China’s global fisheries strategy, including the generous subsidies provided to the industry. We examine the extent to which China may be engaging in IUU fishing, arguing that although the Chinese government has moved to curtail IUU fishing activities, several challenges remain. While the fleet appears to largely be operating legally, some behavior indicates exceptions. Furthermore, despite any seemingly technical compliance with existing laws and regulations, some of Chinese fishing activity falls into the “unreported” and “unregulated” categories and deserves careful consideration in terms of the sustainability of such operations.

New Attention, but Not New

 Windward data helps to visualize the Chinese fleet’s activity over time, illustrating that the presence of Chinese fishing vessels in the waters around the Galapagos 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) has been increasing for several years. In 2015, there was virtually no Chinese fishing activity in the Galapagos and the waters outside the archipelago’s EEZ. Beginning in 2016, however, that changed dramatically. In August 2016, for example, 191 different Chinese-flagged vessels engaged in fishing operations in the wider Galapagos area—a stark contrast to the one Chinese vessel that was detected in that area the same month in 2015. The numbers have only increased since then, fluctuating with the fishing seasons. Over the course of 2017, three months saw more than 200 vessels fishing in the area, peaking at 263 in the month of July. In 2018, there were four consecutive months—May through August—with over 200 Chinese vessels fishing in the area, and a fifth month, December, with 193. The peak that year was 286 in June. In 2019, there were five months with over 200 vessels, and two more, June and July, with 197 and 130, respectively. The peak in 2019 was September, with 298.

Chinese Fishing Vessels Near the Galapagos, January 2015 – September 2020 [Click to expand] (Source: Windward)
The phenomenon has now become more extreme, as 2020 saw four months with over 200 vessels, two of which had over 300 vessels. In July 2020, there were 342 Chinese vessels fishing in the area and in August, there were 344. Even in September, 295 different Chinese-flagged vessels fished in the waters around the Galapagos.

To better understand what is behind this huge increase in activity, it is important to understand the policies that are driving the Chinese fishing industry.

Understanding China’s Global Fishing Strategy

Thanks to the data aggregation capabilities of Windward, it is possible to examine some of the details behind this massive fleet. Between July and August 2020, 364 different Chinese vessels in the area transmitted on automated information system (AIS). All vessels over 300 gross tons operating internationally must, under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, be fitted with AIS and keep it turned on. Therefore, there may have been more than 364 vessels, as some may have been present but “dark” and thus undetectable through AIS. Examining just those 364, however, reveals valuable insights into the ownership behind them and their provinces of origin. Notwithstanding a few vessels whose ownership is unknown, 55 companies own the fleet on paper, though several companies have identical addresses, indicating that there may be fewer than 55 beneficial owners.

The vessels off the Galapagos are part of China’s distant water fishing (DWF) fleet, which operates in areas beyond national jurisdiction—or the “high seas” as defined under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—and in the EEZs of host countries on the basis of bilateral fisheries access agreements. China officially reported a total of 2,701 DWF vessels in 2019, and a total of 159 DWF enterprises in 2017.

The fleet around the Galapagos is the result of distinct shifts in Chinese fisheries policy. From the launch of China’s DWF industry in 1985 until around the mid-2010s, China’s strategy was to expand the fleet and increase catch. Yet in China’s 13th fisheries five-year plan—the most recent— the strategy shifted away from a focus on pure expansion to one of upgrading and consolidating the industry. China aims to have more control over the entire supply chain, from point of harvest, transport and landing, to processing and distribution and ultimately to retail markets. Concurrent with this shift, as China upgrades its vessel technology to better process and store catch, China aims to send more of its DWF catch back to China for sale on the domestic market. China has been building domestic port infrastructure for this seafood distribution. In 2018, China sent 65 percent of its catch home, an increase from 49 percent in 2009.

Simultaneously, China has been moving away from reliance on catch from other EEZs toward high-seas fishing, as host countries have become more concerned about unsustainable fishing by foreign fleets in their waters and costs have increased. While some high seas areas are managed by regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), there is no comprehensive regulatory body for fishing on the high seas with global scope. As high seas areas become increasingly regulated by the patchwork of RFMOs, fishing quotas may be distributed to fleets that have historical fishing presence in the area. A task force report published in 2010 by Chinese government, industry, and academics argued that countries that have a longer history of using the ocean have more power in determining how resources are distributed and thus receive a larger share of those resources: “occupying brings about rights and interests” (占有即权益). In accordance with these trends, in 2017, China’s DWF fleet caught 66 percent of its catch from the high seas, versus in the EEZs of other countries, compared to 43 percent in 2010.

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, Aug. 7, 2020. (Photo via Reuters)

Chinese investment in this strategy is reflected by which provinces these vessels call home. Of the 364 vessels found operating outside the Galapagos in July and August, 92 could not be definitively linked to a specific owner. Of the remaining 272, 188 were from Zhejiang Province. Because Chinese vessel names tend to be uniform and reflect a group owned by the same company but distinguished by different numbers, it is likely that 50 more vessels without company names are also from Zhejiang, because of the similarities in the vessel names. Therefore, two-thirds of the fishing vessels are likely from Zhejiang (238 out of 364). Of the remainder, 46 vessels are from Shandong Province, plus another 19 likely to be from Shandong, for a total of 65, or 18 percent.

Share of Fishing Vessels near the Galapagos by Chinese Province [Click to Expand] (Authors’ graphic)
It is no coincidence that Zhejiang and Shandong are the home provinces for 83 percent of the fleet. Zhejiang and Shandong are the largest recipients of at least one DWF fisheries subsidy program, receiving RMB ¥ 2.141 and ¥ 2.111 billion, respectively, from the central government across two years from 2018 to 2019. The third largest recipient, Fujian Province, which accounted for the next largest batch of fishing vessels, received RMB ¥ 1.181 billion in government subsidies during the same time period. These three provinces were also the top three producers of China’s official total DWF catch, which amounted to 2.257 million tons in 2018.

Home provinces of vessels [Click to Expand] (Authors’ graphic)
As China aims to increasingly bring its global catch home, these three provinces are also the location of three new ports dedicated to landing DWF catch on Chinese shores. Zhejiang brings in the largest share of China’s DWF catch (24 percent in 2018). Thus, in 2015, the first national DWF fishing port was proposed for construction in the town of Zhoushan, Zhejiang Province. Zhoushan National Distant Water Fishing Base (舟山国家远洋渔业基地), supported by government funding, serves to promote DWF seafood to the Chinese domestic market, with port infrastructure to support the docking of 1,300 fishing vessels, processing and storage facilities, throughput for one million tons of catch annually, and a shipbuilding center. The main species landed at this port is squid, facilitated by a China DWF Squid Trade Center at the base.

Shandong Province, the country’s third largest producer of DWF catch (20 percent in 2018), is home to the second national DWF base, Shaowodao National DWF Base (荣成沙窝岛国家远洋渔业基地), approved for construction in 2016 in the city of Rongcheng. With similar support facilities, Shawodao will have the capacity to dock 1,000 fishing vessels and be able to handle the trade of 600,000 tons of fish, including squid and tuna. Fujian Province, home to China’s first group of DWF vessels and the country’s second largest producer of DWF catch (21 percent in 2018), will be the host province for China’s third national DWF base, Fuzhou (Lianjiang) National DWF Base (福州 (连江) 国家远洋渔业基地) in the city of Fuzhou, which was approved for construction in 2019.

The changing patterns in China’s DWF policies are also reflected in the trade and catch data. Over this time period, China’s imports of squid from Peru and Argentina have fallen, while China’s own catch of squid has risen, possibly because China decided to catch the squid directly through its DWF fleet. According to China’s official statistics, Zhejiang’s catch of squid grew from 69,000 tons in 2009 to 356,000 tons in 2018, while Shandong’s squid catch grew from 21,000 tons to 102,000 tons over the same period.

Chinese imports of squid from Peru and Argentina by volume in tons, 2012–2016 [Click to Expand] (Authors’ graphic)
IUU Fishing in the Galapagos EEZ? 

Visualizing even a portion of the fishing activities in July and August 2020 is instructive on a few fronts. Based on Windward’s algorithmic analysis of AIS data indicating fishing activities, each dot on the image below represents a Chinese vessel engaged in fishing during that two-month window.

Windward visualization of fishing activity by the Chinese fleet in July and August 2020. Each dot indicates the location of a fishing operation. The line is the outer limit of the Ecuadorian EEZ around the Galapagos Islands. [Click to Expand] (Source: Author graphic via Windward)
Most strikingly, not a single dot appears within the EEZ of the Galapagos. The edge of the 200 nautical mile zone is almost perfectly drawn by the dots. This is consistent with statements made by President Lenín Moreno of Ecuador on Twitter, namely that the focus of Ecuador is on protection of the EEZ.

The Chinese fleet is not permitted to fish in Ecuador’s EEZ, and, insofar as the AIS data indicates, the fleet appeared to be only on the high seas, and thus not illegally in Ecuador’s EEZ.

This behavior contrasts with activities in the past. Take, for example, the visualization of fishing activities in July and August 2017, in which fishing Chinese vessels fished within the Galapagos EEZ:

Windward visualization of fishing activity by the Chinese fleet in July and August 2017. Each dot indicates the location of a fishing operation. The line is the outer limit of the Ecuadorian EEZ around the Galapagos Islands which can be seen at the top of the image. [Click to expand] (Source: Author graphic via Windward)
These illegal fishing activities culminated in the arrival of the FU YUAN YU LENG 999, a refrigerated cargo vessel, in the Galapagos EEZ on 12 August 2017. Three days later, the vessel was arrested and the captain and crew ultimately were sentenced to four years in prison and fined $6.1 million. As a refrigerated cargo vessel, rather than a fishing vessel, the operators may have thought that it was not likely to be detected much less arrested for its involvement in illegal fishing. As has been reported, however, the cargo vessel was meeting and transshipping illegal catch from “dark” fishing vessels at sea, though these fishing vessels were never arrested and prosecuted for their illegal activities.

Windward visualization of the path of the FU YUAN YU LENG 999 beginning on 12 August 2017 and ending with its arrest. [Click to Expand] (Source: Author graphic via Windward)
Judging from both the AIS activity and China’s policy responses, the FU YUAN YU LENG 999 experience has made the Chinese fleet more cautious. China created an IUU blacklist by the end of 2017; removed some fishing subsidies as punishment for vessels caught engaging in IUU fishing; created a DWF training and compliance center; and capped the number of fishing vessels in the fleet to 3,000. In February 2020, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) revised its DWF Regulations, formalizing the prohibition on IUU fishing and calling on vessels to leave a buffer around off-limits areas. While the DWF regulations do not specify the size of the buffer, a follow-on notification on DWF safety determined the buffer to be one nautical mile, though this is a decrease from three nautical miles.

IUU Fishing on the High Seas?

While the fleet does not seem to be illegally fishing in the Galapagos EEZ, the vessels are still subject to various RFMO rules that govern fishing on the high seas. The RFMO that manages tuna in this area is the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), of which China is a member. The IATTC sets annual quotas for tuna species, keeps lists of registered fishing and transport vessels, as well as vessels caught engaging in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. China has 415 longline tuna vessels registered with the IATTC. Of the 364 vessels fishing outside the Galapagos EEZ, only one of them was on the IATTC list of registered vessels.

The vast majority of the rest of the fleet is under management jurisdiction of the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization (SPRFMO), which regulates high seas species aside from tuna such as jack mackerel and soon, squid. Of the other 363 vessels fishing outside the Galapagos EEZ, all but 16 of them were registered with the SPRFMO. As one of the globe’s newer RFMOs, established in 2012, its species coverage is still growing. China began fishing jack mackerel (竹荚鱼) with 15 vessels in 2003 after conducting exploratory catch missions in 2001 and 2002. China’s catch of jack mackerel grew from 14,000 tons in 2005 to 61,229 tons in 2018, with Shandong Province accounting for 65 percent, followed by Zhejiang Province at 24 percent.

The year 2020 marks the advent of the first large-scale regulation of high seas squid. The SPRFMO issued measures to regulate jumbo flying squid, which will enter into force in 2021. Thus, through the present, China’s squid fishing is not illegal but rather unreported. In the run-up to the entry into force of these measures, China may be establishing as great a fishing presence as possible and taking advantage of this being the last year without regulations. At the same time, also in 2020, the Chinese government initiated the first moratorium on high seas squid fishing, with one area adjacent to the Galapagos. The fact that China has taken this step suggests that China recognizes the current fishing levels by its large fleet are so unsustainable that the fishing effort is undermining the fleet’s own long-term interests.

After all, of the 1,135 vessels registered to the SPRFMO, 700 vessels—62 percent—are flagged to China. The next two largest fleets are 127 and 99 in number, flagged to Panama and Peru, respectively.

The Remaining Challenges

While the Chinese fleet seemed to have avoided illegal fishing in the Galapagos EEZ, and is largely registered with the relevant RFMOs, there are still causes for concern. Vessels can turn their AIS transponders off and go dark. There are some concerns with the flagging of Chinese vessels to other countries, and issues with transshipping catch. Similar vessel names and changing reported vessel measurements increase law enforcement challenges. And finally, even if it is legal, this fishing activity is not necessarily sustainable.

Though the Chinese seemed to stay out of the Galapagos EEZ, what may have occurred is one of three things:

1. The Chinese fleet was being very careful not to break the law and was staying just outside the Galapagos exclusive economic zone.
2. The Chinese fleet was being very careful not to appear to break the law, so was only sending “dark” vessels into the Galapagos exclusive economic zone.
3. The Chinese fleet was being very careful not to appear to break the law, so was using non-Chinese-flagged vessels to provide the catch from within the Galapagos exclusive economic zone and transshipping on the high seas.

By concentrating so many vessels outside the exclusive economic zone, with AIS on, the approach may be to distract from any “dark” incursions into the Galapagos’ waters or to hide the transshipments with other vessels in plain sight. The picture of fishing activities in July and August 2020 when looking at all vessels, not just Chinese vessels, shows that a total 554 vessels—not just 364—engaged in fishing operations, many of them inside the Galapagos exclusive economic zone.

Windward visualization of fishing activity in July and August 2020. Each dot indicates the location of a fishing operation. The line is the outer limit of the Ecuadorian EEZ around the Galapagos Islands which can be seen in the upper portion of the image. [Click to Expand] (Source: Author graphic via Windward)
Delving into the data further, Windward indicates that between July and August 2020, 363 of those 554 vessels have engaged both in fishing operations and a meeting with another vessel, suggesting either transshipment or bunkering. Not surprisingly, the majority of the meetings have been either Chinese-to-Chinese or Ecuadorian-to-Ecuadorian. Excluding those meetings and further excluding passenger craft, there are actually only 20 vessels of note. The overwhelming majority those vessels are Chinese-owned, Panamanian-flagged, and most of them are refrigerated cargo vessels—the sort used to transport fish.

Chart indicating the non-Chinese vessels operating in the area around the Galapagos EEZ in July and August 2020. [Click to Expand] (Source: Author chart)
The Reefers

Looking at the behavior of the refrigerated cargo vessels (or “reefers”) on this list, however, shows that the fleet may have learned from the FU YUAN YU LENG 999 experience. The HE TAI, for example is owned by a Chinese company that has the same address as the Chinese company that operates it. That address is in the same area as a number of the companies that own and operate some of the Chinese-flagged vessels that comprise the fleet. But the HE TAI is actually flagged in Panama and has not ever crossed into the Galapagos EEZ. The HE TAI has, however, had rendezvous with 25 of the 364 Chinese vessels that were fishing in the area, two of them twice. While this is not necessarily illegal, reflagging is generally seen as a means to seek lower standards for fishing operations. China has announced new measures regulating transshipment of catch on the high seas, however it is unclear whether these would cover transshipment to vessels flagged to other countries.

Windward visualization of path of the Panama-flagged reefer HE TAI in July and August 2020, meeting with numerous Chinese fishing vessels in the area outside the Galapagos EEZ. [Click to Expand] (Source: Author graphic via Windward)
Other examples suggest issues with dark vessels and altered vessel measurements. Take, for example, the MING HANG 5, a Hong Kong-flagged refrigerated cargo vessel that in July and August 2020 rendezvoused 42 times with the Chinese fishing fleet. But the behavioral patterns indicate highly suspicious activity. For example, on the 13th of July alone, the MING HANG 5 met with six of the Chinese fleet and changed its draft three times from 0.0 to 6.8 to 0.0 and back to 6.8—a tactic indicative of efforts to obscure the real draft of the vessel and any changes to it arising from fishing or transshipment. Furthermore, after the six meetings, it deviated course. In looking more closely at those meetings, the GANG TAI 8 had been dark for the four days prior to the meeting, and the MING ZHOU 622 had been dark for 10 hours the day prior. Similarly on the 30th of July, the MING HANG 5 changed its draft between 0.0 and 6.8 five times and had a 14-hour meeting with the FU YUAN YU 7875, which had spent 13 hours of the previous day dark. Coincidentally, that partner vessel just so happens to be owned by the same company as the FU YUAN YU 7862, which was the last vessel known to meet with FU YUAN YU LENG 999 before it was arrested in August 2017.

Windward visualization of paths of the Hong Kong-flagged reefer MING HANG 5 and the Chinese-flagged FU YUAN YU 7862 in July and August 2020, with a timeline indicating their 14 hour meeting on the 30th of July. Note the crossing of the Galapagos EEZ by the MING HANG 5 between the 10th and 11th of July. [Click to Expand] (Source: Windward visualization via author)
As this image of the two vessels’ paths indicates, however, the MING HANG 5 also crossed the Galapagos EEZ between the 10th and 11th of July. Right before entering on the morning of the 10th, it changed its registered length from 172 meters to 150 meters. That evening, it changed its draft from N/A to 6.8 and its length from 150 back to 172. Two hours later, it changed its draft from 6.8 to 0.0 and its length back to 150. Less than an hour later—just after midnight on the 11th—it changed the draft back to 6.8 and the length back to 172. This back and forth continued several more times before leaving the zone. This confusing pattern of conduct, along with its other erratic draft changes, indicates an effort to obfuscate its activity and intended purpose. A look at its sister vessel, under common ownership, the MING HANG 7, provides an interesting comparison, having had 54 meetings with the Chinese fleet before heading for China with 119 percent of its cargo capacity by tonnage. In other words, despite not calling at any ports, it is now over full, strongly indicating fisheries transshipment.

This dynamic is consistent with some of the other reefers. The YONG HANG 3, similar to the MING HANG 5, repeatedly changed its draft between 6.5 and 0.0, making it impossible to determine what effect the 19 meetings it had with the Chinese fleet had on its actual draft. The SHEN JU had been in the area since April and constantly switched its draft between 7.8 and 0.0, similarly making the effect of its 55 meetings with the fleet impossible to determine. The SHUN ZE LENG 6 only became the SHUNG ZE LENG 6 on 29 March 2020 when it changed ownership. Since then, it never called at a port, but did meet 50 times with the Chinese fleet and added a half meter of draft before heading back to China at 83 percent of max capacity by tonnage. The YONG XIANG 9 was in the area since April, without making a port call, and meeting with the fleet 18 times before heading back to China.

All of this points to a systematic and conscious attempt to transship the catch on the high seas to bring it back to China. The obfuscation tactics may be a mix of concern about reputational harm and uncertainty about applicable law.

The Tankers

Of the 20 refrigerated cargo vessels, six are tankers. One of them is unidentifiable, suggesting it was operating illegally, but it only had two meetings with vessels in the Chinese fleet, both with the same vessel, the LU RONG YUAN YU 939. The B. PACIFIC, which only had one meeting, is the sister vessel to the B. ATLANTIC which is well-known for bunkering in the Gulf of Guinea. Interestingly, though, that one meeting was with the FU YUAN YU 7876, the sister vessel to the 7875 and 7862, both mentioned above. The HAI SOON 26 engaged in eight meetings, but only entered the area at the end of August and left at the beginning of September, suggesting it was possibly just taking advantage of the high concentration of vessels for bunkering. Conversely, the remaining three vessels—the HAI XING (39 meetings), the HAI GONG YOU 303 (69 meetings) and the OCEAN SPLENDID (89 meetings)—all seem to have been in the area specifically to service not only the Chinese fleet but the reefers like the SHUN ZE LENG 6 that seem to be transshipping with the fishing vessels. While such bunkering is not illegal, it is indicative of the extent of this operation as the maintenance of the Chinese fleet at sea requires a variety of service vessels, including tankers.


Another questionable practice is the use of the same name for different vessels because the duplication may serve as an obfuscation tactic to make interdiction more difficult, allowing each vessel to point a finger at the other should anything occur. An interesting example is the United Kingdom-flagged ZHOU YU 921, not to be confused with the Chinese-flagged ZHOU YU 921, which is part of the Chinese fleet. The vessels are not at all physically identical—the British one is 33 meters in length and the Chinese vessel is 51 meters. While the owners of the British ZHOU YU 921 cannot be verified, there is substantial reason to suspect a close relationship to the Chinese-flagged ZHOU YU 921 because 19 meetings occurred between the two vessels in July and August 2020.

In three other cases, vessels had exactly the same name and International Maritime Organization (IMO) number, but were in fact different vessels. Both the CHANG AN 168 and the CHANG TAI 812 had second vessels with the same name and IMO number, though in the latter case, they did have different Mobile Maritime Service Identity (MMSI) numbers. One name, the JIN HAI 779, was used by three different vessels fishing in the area, each of which also used identical IMO and MMSI numbers. Such use of identical names and identifying numbers by multiple vessels is illegal. And two vessels had very similar names, the JIA DE 12 and the JIA DA 12, but only the former was on the SPRFMO list of registered vessels.

Conclusion and Policy Recommendations

This analysis provided an examination of the Chinese fleet around the Galapagos in order to better understand its macro behavior over time, the industry drivers, some of the recent tactics employed by the fleet, and to ascertain whether IUU fishing is occurring. In most cases, what is detectable may not be illegal, and care is clearly being taken by the Chinese fleet to give the appearance of legal compliance with national and international laws. As the recent changes in Chinese policy suggest, some of this compliance is likely to be genuine. China cares about its international reputation, and knowledge in China about marine environmental protection is growing.

At the same time, China’s competing domestic priorities are resulting in what is likely some illegal fishing activity, and definitely unreported and unregulated fishing activity, requiring different policy responses. The evidence suggests that dark vessel activity and multi-national shell games are obscuring illegal fishing inside the Ecuadorian EEZ around the Galapagos. If Ecuador can more closely monitor the activities, not just of the fleet, but the companies that own the fleet, and the vessels that service the fleet, a more complete picture can be drawn.

The fishing activities on the high seas outside the Galapagos EEZ are unregulated, and the total fishing effort seems unsustainable and irresponsible from an environmental standpoint. The fleet likely would not be able to operate without the enormous subsidies the Chinese government provides every year. In 2018, China provided an estimated 21 percent of all global fisheries subsidies, and 27 percent of the harmful global subsidies. The deep pockets of the Chinese government result in a global fishing fleet that exceeds the size of any other fleet in the world.

While this analysis focused on the peak months of July and August 2020 around the Galapagos, the phenomenon has by no means ended—the majority of the vessels have moved south and, as of mid-October, are now concentrated in the high seas outside of the central and southern portions of the Peruvian EEZ.

Windward visualization of fishing activity by the Chinese fleet in October 2020 outside Peru’s EEZ. Each dot indicates the location of a fishing operation. [Click to Expand] (Source: Author graphic via Windward)
The response to high seas fishing must be global. Scientific understanding of high seas fisheries is not as robust as that of coastal fisheries, and thus a precautionary approach is important. Not only does unsustainable fishing threaten long-term food security and the economic viability of the industry, but it may also decrease marine biodiversity, which is already under threat from climate change. At the national level, the U.S. Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) could be expanded to cover squid, which is the main genus the fleet targets. Regionally, organizations like the Comisión Permanente del Pacífico Sur, which looks after the collective fisheries interests and management of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile, can collaborate on high seas management and protection. At the international level, we must support the efforts of the United Nations to establish an agreement on protecting biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). And the outcome of the World Trade Organization negotiations on fisheries subsidies, concluding possibly at the end of 2020, is crucial—China is currently seeking exemptions arguing that it is still a developing country.

Development, however, can never be to the detriment of the entire planet, and unsustainable fishing practices around the world have put extreme pressure on global fish stocks and dramatically diminished ocean health. Our ability to sustain human life depends on our ability to maintain the resources needed for our sustenance. As much as this matter is up for legal, political or environmental debate, it is most fundamentally a concern for all humanity.

Tabitha Grace Mallory is Founder and CEO of the consulting firm China Ocean Institute and Affiliate Professor of the University of Washington Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. Dr. Mallory specializes in Chinese foreign and environmental policy. She conducts research on China and global ocean governance and has published work on China’s fisheries and oceans policy. She previously served as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Princeton–Harvard China and the World Program. Dr. Mallory holds a Ph.D. (with distinction) in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). She is currently a fellow in the National Committee on U.S.–China Relations Public Intellectuals Program.

Dr. Ian Ralby is a recognized expert in maritime law and security and serves as CEO of I.R. Consilium. He has worked on maritime security issues in more than 80 countries around the world, including in Ecuador and the wider Pacific Coast of South America. He spent four years as Adjunct Professor of Maritime Law and Security at the United States Department of Defense’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, and three years as a Maritime Crime Expert for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. I.R. Consilium is a family firm that specializes in maritime and resource security and focuses on problem-solving around the globe.

Featured Image: A fishing boat is seen from an aircraft of the Ecuadorian Navy after a fishing fleet of mostly Chinese-flagged ships was detected in an international corridor that borders the Galapagos Islands’ exclusive economic zone, in the Pacific Ocean, August 7, 2020.(Photo via Reuters/Santiago Arcos)