Colombia's island of Malpelo, home to a vast marine reserve, is suffering the consequences of increasing levels of illegal fishing by domestic and foreign crews, with responses from authorities failing to address the problem so far.
Since 2017, Colombian authorities have been reporting an increase in fishing vessels from Ecuador, China and Panama, off the country’s Pacific coast.
The problem only seems to be growing worse. In late April, neighboring Ecuador reported that 245 ships had been seen in 2019 so far around its own Galápagos National Park and along its maritime border with Malpelo.
The Colombia navy, for its part, on April 16 captured 21 Ecuadoreans and six Colombians in six motorboats close to Malpelo.`
Illegal fishing crews often work in partnership with smaller motorboats which allow them to quickly move their catches to safer areas, away from authorities, if the need arises.
China's demand for fresh fish has fuelled the illegal fishing boom around Malpelo, with highly requested species such as hammerhead sharks, tuna, albacore and wreckfish among the most affected.
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Illegal fishing along Colombia's Pacific Coast is not new. However, the increasingly frequent presence of foreign ships in Malpelo, from Ecuador, Panama and China, shows that the government has been unable to stop them.
The presence of illegal Ecuadorean vessels in Malpelo points to their desire to find new spots outside Ecuadorean borders, where they can act without the potential legal implications of illegal fishing in protected areas such as the Galápagos National Park.
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In April, Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno deployed ships and planes to the Galápagos National Park, set up new permanent coast guard presences and increased satellite monitoring over the area. The Chinese ambassador to Ecuador was also summoned to a meeting.
On paper, Colombia has been doing its best to defend Malpelo as well. The size of the maritime natural reserve was tripled in 2017 to 2.7 million hectares by the government of former president Juan Manuel Santos.
However, despite coordinated efforts by the navy, the national park's staff and NGOs, efforts to stop illegal fishing have failed to make a major impact.
The lack of resources to combat illegal fishing has also exposed another area of vulnerability: trade agreements between Colombia and Ecuador.
Hammerhead sharks and other Malpelo species are often sent to China, where they are in demand for use in traditional Chinese medicine or as status symbols, inside Ecuadorean export shipments. It is estimated that in 2017, the illicit business generated more than $23 billion globally.
The situation is further complicated when the illegal fishing industry crosses paths with cocaine trafficking.
Criminal groups are now increasingly making drug deals and exchanges far out at sea, concealed among fishing boats for security, Semana Rural reported.
Ironically, this appears to trigger a faster response from Colombian authorities than illegal fishing. "We only see the authorities whenever the ships are carrying cocaine," said Manuel Bedoya, president of Colombia's Association of Pacific Artisanal Fishermen.