However, the AIS data from the Chinese ship shows no evidence that it stopped to take on a transshipment of fish while it crossed the reserve. So where could the sharks have come from? There are a couple of theories.

The “ghost poachers”

After the Chinese ship was seized, aerial reconnaissance missions by the Ecuadorian navy found a fleet of more than 100 foreign fishing vessels—many of which were too small to have AIS systems—in international waters just to the south of the reserve. Pelayo Salinas, a marine ecologist from the reserve’s Charles Darwin Research Station, wrote to us that, “based on the trajectory of the boat” and locations of those fishing boats, he thinks the sharks were likely fished near the Galapagos.

Bolstering that theory, the shark species on board are abundant in the waters around the islands, and there were young and baby sharks in the haul, said Ecuador’s environment minister. That shows the catch could have even been from within the Galapagos reserve itself, since it is an important hammerhead breeding ground.

But there are other possibilities. “This ship sailed from Asia in April,” Walter Bustos, Director of the Galapagos National Park, said in a phone interview. Sharks, which tend to be solitary hunters, congregate in two primary spots along the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999’s route: off the coast of Asia and near the Galapagos. The transfer to the Chinese ship could have happened anywhere on that route, Bustos said, and only DNA testing will reveal for certain whether the sharks came from the western or eastern Pacific.

Entities such as the Galapagos Park Rangers and the non-profit organization Global Fishing Watch have access to historical AIS data and could feasibly map the journey the smugglers took before reaching the Galapagos. It might show the vessel pausing to rendezvous with other ships. But since many fishing vessels are too small to carry AIS, they themselves wouldn’t be visible.

Wherever it took place, such a transfer at sea, known as transshipment, would have been unauthorized. Under multi-national conventions in the western (pdf) and eastern (pdf) Pacific, only certain vessels may receive transshipments of fish from fishing boats. The Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 is on neither treaty’s list. In fact, as China is a signatory of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, for a Chinese vessel to even carry scalloped hammerheads that have been transshipped is illegal without a “non-detriment finding” (NDF), a permit for exporting species that the convention lists as threatened. The crew of the ship didn’t present such a permit when they were boarded.

And a look at the vessel’s ownership suggests that the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 may be involved in a wider nexus of fishing.

The question of ownership

The ship is registered to a China-based company, Fuzhou Honglong Ocean Fishing, according to International Maritime Organization records. In 2013 Hong Long sold 46 ships and licensed 20 more to a larger company, Pingtan Marine Enterprises, according to a 2013 SEC filing (pdf, p. 10) as well as a 2014 class-action lawsuit (pdf). Pingtan’s CEO and majority shareholder, Xinrong Zhuo, and Hong Long’s majority shareholder, Ping Lin, are husband and wife, according to those documents. Pingtan’s website lists more than 140 Fu Yuan Yu vessels that it owns or leases from Hong Long, though the Leng 999 isn’t on the list.

A Pingtan representative reached by phone denied that Pingtan owns the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, that Zhuo or any subsidiaries have an economic interest in it, or that Hong Long is a related company. “Your databases are wrong,” he said.

A report by research firm Aurelius Value in May suggests Pingtan is implicated in human trafficking and shark poaching in East Timor, as well as fraudulent financial activity in which it purchased the CEO’s own vessels for inflated prices. Earlier this year, a class-action lawsuit (pdf), which cites the Aurelius report, was filed in the US against Pingtan on behalf of investors, alleging that the company made false and misleading claims about the value of its shares.

No matter who owns the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, the Ecuadorian authorities say its capture provides an example to the world. “We demonstrated that we have the capability to capture that kind of vessel,” said Bustos. “Ecuador was the first country in the world that declared not only human rights, but nature rights, since 2008, in our constitution. So we are obligated to protect the lives of these fish.”

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