BLAME TAIWAN

An ingenious use of big data helped expose a Chinese company illegally poaching thousands of sharks

Last month, Ecuadorian authorities busted a ship carrying one of the largest caches of illegally caught sharks in history. The crew of the ship has now been tried, fined, and sentenced. Yet the plot of this complicated tale—a rare glimpse into the black market trade made possible by industrialized global fishing—just keeps on thickening.

First a rundown of what happened. On Aug. 13, Ecuadorian coast guards intercepted the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 with 300 tons of fish—more than half of which was sharks, including babies and endangered species—crammed in its hold.

The FYY Leng 999 (as we’ll abbreviate it, since other ships with “Fu Yuan Yu” in their names are about to enter the picture) is a Chinese-flagged refrigerated-cargo vessel, one of the key technologies underlying the industrialization of marine fishing. These “reefers,” as they’re sometimes known, don’t catch fish. Instead they buy them from other fishing vessels, storing them in their massive refrigerated holds while the other boats head back out to catch more.

The FYY Leng 999 obviously didn’t catch the sharks. But who, then, did? A new report out today by Caixin (paywall), a leading Chinese financial magazine, gets us a step closer to the answer.

Chinese authorities insist that the ships that poached the sharks are two Taiwan-flagged vessels named Hai Fang 301 and Hai Fang 302, citing receipts reported by Ecuadorian authorities that were found onboard the FYY Leng 999 and China’s fishery administration’s conversation with that ship’s captain. This implies that Chinese involvement was limited to transshipment, and not actual poaching—something the government might want to emphasize given increasing attention to its subsidizing fishing fleets accused of depleting other countries’ marine resources. (Technically, China claims Taiwan as its sovereign territory, but never mind that.)

There’s a catch, though. Neither Hai Fang 301 nor Hai Fang 302 are registered with any country. Meaning, they don’t exist.

So who, then, did catch the 150 tons of sharks?

SkyTruth, a nonprofit, retraced FYY Leng 999‘s journey from China to Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands using Global Fishing Watch, a platform that employs artificial intelligence to collect and analyze ships’ satellite data, which SkyTruth created in collaboration with Google and another nonprofit, Oceana, in 2014. After departing on July 7, it chugged steadily across the Pacific for a month and then, on Aug. 5, suddenly stopped. But it wasn’t alone in the vast emptiness of the eastern Pacific. Soon, four vessels joined the FYY Leng 999, each sidling up to the reefer for about 12 hours at a time. “These lengthy rendezvous at sea suggest a substantial transfer of cargo was possible,” said Skytruth.

fuyuanyuleng999_pacific_track-GFW
Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 meets up with the four other Fu Yuan Yus. (Global Fishing Watch)

The four ships are—and this is where it gets confusing—Fu Yuan Yu 7861, Fu Yuan Yu 7862, Fu Yuan Yu 7865, and Fu Yuan Yu 7866. They’re supposed to be catching tuna.

Was this quartet of “Fu Yuan Yu” the culprit? Two of the vessels are owned by NASDAQ-listed Pingtan Marine Enterprises, China’s second-biggest marine-fishing company, according to the company’s website. And Pingtan has a special relationship with Fuzhou Hong Long, the company that owns FYY Leng 999. The CEO and majority owner of Pingtan is Zhuo Xingrong. His wife, Lin Ping, happens to be the biggest shareholder of Fuzhou Hong Long, according to Pingtan’s financial statements. She may, however, have recently shifted ownership to a company owned by Zhuo’s brother, who also happens to be a director of Pingtan, reports Caixin.

Despite all this, the Chinese fisheries authority doubled down on blaming the fictitious Taiwanese ships, telling Caixin they may have traveled undetected by turning off their satellite positioning systems. Since to do so, these ghost ships would have had to travel the Pacific without satellite navigation for the entirety of their journey, this conjecture is highly unlikely, fishing experts told Caixin.

And while Pingtan CEO Zhuo wouldn’t comment on the alleged involvement of his tuna FYYs, he told Caixin that the captain of FYY Leng 999 is an old friend of the captain of the two Taiwanese boats that supposedly caught the sharks.

But, wait—if Hai Fang 301 and Hai Fang 302 don’t exist, where’d the receipts onboard FYY Leng 999 come from?

It turns out when reporting the incident, the Ecuadorian authorities misspelled the ships names; the receipts cited in court were for Hai Feng 301 and Hai Feng 302, reports Caixin. Doh.

Weirdly, a vessel named Hai Feng 301—but renamed Hai Fa in 2009—was convicted of illegal trade in 66 tons of hammerheads and whitetip sharks (both protected species) in Indonesia in 2015, according to Greenpeace. That vessel—which, like FYY Leng 999, is a reefer—is owned by a Hong Kong-registered company that Caixin links to Pingtan. But in July and August of this year, Hai Fa was nowhere near the eastern Pacific.

The remaining unsettled question is where the FYY Leng 999 was ultimately headed when Galapagos authorities apprehended it.

SkyTruth has a hunch. It turns out FYY Leng 999 has a history of operating near where suspicious fishing activity is afoot. This includes palling around with an unregulated squid fleet in the northwest Indian Ocean in 2016. And—what do you know?—around the corner from where the FYY Leng 999 was busted, there it is: a cluster of squid ships, bobbing just beyond Ecuador’s territorial waters, near a critical hammerhead breeding ground.

Fu-Yuan-Yu-Leng-999-Galapagos-SkyTruth
(SkyTruth)

Correction (Friday, Sep. 29, 2017, 9:30am ET): A previous version said that SkyTruth runs the Global Fishing Watch platform. Though it was a founding member and works closely with Global Fishing Watch, it is no longer involved in operating the platform.

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