Off Ecuador, Piracy is Causing Poverty and Marine Contamination with Ghost Nets

fishing boats on the shore
Inmediato Digital
Esmeraldas, Ecuador
Off Ecuador, Piracy is Causing Poverty and Marine Contamination with Ghost Nets

Piracy is by no means a matter of the past: five centuries after the terrible presence of Sir Francis Drake (Tavistock, England, 1540 - Portobelo, Panamá, 28th of January 1596), pirates are still assaulting, killing, and leaving a path of destruction all along the Pacific coast. Nowadays, off the coast of Atacames, Esmeraldas, they are not using galleons anymore, nor are they stealing gold or trafficking slaves, but pirates operate in dangerous gangs with speed boats to steal outboard motors from artisanal fishermen. This has a direct relationship with drug trafficking cartels. The pirates extract outboard motors, GPS devices, cell phones, and anything of value they can find in the fibras, open outboard-powered fishing boats, from their victims.

Mariano Olmedo, the president of the Cooperativa de Producción Pesquera Artesanal Nuevo Porvenir (an artisanal fishery cooperative), of Súa, tells us that more and more fishermen lost the equipment they need to make a living because of the assaults and the loss of their motors. They fell into unpayable debts and have been submerged in poverty without hope for a better future. Olmedo himself has lost four motors worth 27,000 US dollars to the pirates. The cooperative now has 25 members and 10 fishing boats. A decade ago, there were twice as many members and 40 boats.

infographic on piracy

Because of the assaults at the sea, the Córdova family of fishermen from Súa lost assets totaling 70,000 US dollars. “They have always robbed me. They took 10 motors, three boats, and 4 gillnets from us…” claims Ricardo Córdova, the father of the family, who also states that every day he fears for the lives of his children, brothers, and friends, who go out at sea to fish without knowing if they will ever come back home. But for them, fishing is their only way to sustain their families and they feel left with little choice but to run the risks necessary to maintain their livelihood. 

His son, Ricardo Córdova, has also been a victim of the pirates who approach fishing boats to rob fishers while they are engaged in their tasks. “This scene was very traumatic,” he tells us. “It is as if you enter in shock and are paralyzed while you let them do what they want, just to save your life.” Córdova also tells us that there were incidents in which some of his companions were murdered due to putting up the slightest resistance when they were robbed.

Another testimony of the complicated situation the fishers endure came from José Mojarrango. He was assaulted 12 years ago at 7am in the morning, when a boat with men dressed in military uniform approached his fishing boat and asked them to stop. “We thought they were from the marina (the Coast Guard),” he told us, “But, in the end, they were pirates, and they took our motor. They did the same with other companions.” The motor he lost at that time was worth 5,000 US dollars. “We were able to identify the pirates and we notified the authorities. They were even detained, but a few days later they were free again.” Ever since, Jose only fishes in the daytime and never goes too far from shore so as to keep his life and his goods.

Olmedo, as the leader of the fishing cooperative of Súa, has requested help from the Esmeraldas Port captain, but to no avail. He is convinced that the authorities “well know who these irregular groups are, that go out to harm and damage the fishing sector in the province of Esmeraldas. There are moments – and the authorities know – when the pirates hang out for three days to steal, day and night, out at sea.” He is appalled that the criminals are never detained.

outboard motors
Outboard motors are the target of criminal gangs who aim to use them to transport illegal substances across the sea / Credit: Lino Morejón.

In the past five years, about 850 outboard motors were registered as stolen by the port authorities of Esmeraldas. A new outboard motor costs around 7,000 US dollars, a significant value for a fisherman who has a monthly income between 100 and 850 dollars. However, according to the Port captain of Esmeraldas, Aurelio Mejía Espinoza, “no detentions for these crimes have been made”. He explains: there is an “absence of authority in the jurisdiction because most of the coast guard units are not operative as a lack of funding for new equipment and maintenance.”

In fact, not all the stolen motors are reported to the armed forces and thus, the real number of motors lost during assaults may be twice as high. Very frequently, the victims prefer to remain silent and not report their loss to local authorities as they fear oppression and threats by the criminal gangs. Incidents of piracy in Esmeraldas have left behind missing people, orphans and widows. Virlenis Vera still mourns her husband, Elías, and feels sorry that he was not able to see their son graduate from university. One day, she said goodbye to him at the fishing port when he left to fish with two of his sons, but Elías did not make it back alive. When they were assaulted, he tried to flee and as a result, received three bullets and succumbed to his injuries on the way back to Tonchigüe.

In 2021, a study was performed by researcher Annalise M. Povolo, entitled “Causes of abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear from the perspectives of fishers in Esmeraldas, Ecuador”, to obtain her master’s degree at the Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) at the University of Bremen, Germany. She found that fishers perceive piracy as the principal cause of loss or abandonment of fishing gear, which ends up as ghost nets on the seafloor. 

Matthias Wolff, co-director of the Ghost Net Project (executed from October 2019 to December 2021), run by the Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT), the University Bremen, the Institute for Applied Ecology (ECOLAB), and the University of San Francisco de Quito, confirms these findings: “Groups of pirates attack fishermen in speed boats and in order to flee, fishermen cut away from their nets. Our research and interviews with numerous local people show that this is the most frequent cause for net loss in this region.”

How do the pirates steal?

With information from claims received, the chief of operations at the port authority of Esmeraldas and Lieutenant Colonel of the Coast Guard, Líder Razuri, knows that “the pirate groups are made up of six heavily armed men”. He says that usually, they operate with two boats. When they spot a group of fishers in a certain area, they will first attack one boat and then use that boat to attack other fishing boats. He declared that “pirates can steal up to 20 or 30 motors in just one day.”

Razuri represents the marine authority of Atacames, Tonchigüe, and Muisne, which are at a distance of 28, 55, and 83 kilometers from Esmeraldas, respectively. Most of the reports he receives are those of stolen motors and boats. He explains that there is a high demand for motors in this area because those assaults “are related to the transport of illegal substances.”

He confirms that most of the gangs operate about 20 miles from shore and then move the motors and the stolen boats to international waters where the Ecuadorian port authorities are not allowed to cross. He stated that “what we try to do is to coordinate internationally with the Colombian port authorities of Tumaco to catch these gangs in Colombia.”

On the other side, according to a resident of Esmeraldas in Ecuador, who prefers to remain anonymous, the pirates are immersed in the communities, “in the bays and in every single fishing port”. He says that fishers are paid to operate as informants and that the pirates have precise information about “where and when fishers go to fish and what kind of motors they have.” He also says that the only way to combat piracy is by using intercommunication equipment where fishers and the armed forces collaborate.

men pushing a boat into water
Artisanal fisheries are the principal source of income for coastal communities in Esmeraldas, who are increasingly threatened by piracy / Credit: Photo: Lino Morejón.

Environmental damage

According to Povolo and Wolff, other causes for lost or abandoned fishing gear on the seafloor, besides piracy, are due to nets accidentally getting stuck on the rocky reefs during fishing operations, bad weather conditions in which fishers can’t maintain control of their gear, or when animals like whales and sea turtles get entangled in the nets and fishers have to cut the nets to free the animals and their gear.

Wolff considers the loss of nets in Esmeraldas to be a very severe situation. A team of divers working with him found abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear (otherwise known as ghost nets) in 90% of the visited dive sites in the Bajos de Atacames. This number of lost nets is even more concerning, considering that on a global scale, 10% of all the plastic entering the oceans is made up of fishing gear, which lasts six centuries until it degrades.  When the fishing nets become fragmented, they are converted into microplastics that enter the food chain and are absorbed by fish, sea turtles, mammals, and humans.

The lost nets damage the marine habitat, damaging and killing corals that provide refuge for other organisms. While the nets are floating in the water, they continue to catch fish, a phenomenon known as “ghost fishing”. These unharvested fish then serve as bait for other fish, proving to be lethal traps for marine species.

Javier Oña, the scientific coordinator of the Ghost Net Project, tells us that as part of the project, they recovered 604 kg of fishing nets, which they use for different research objectives, such as determining the identity of the species that grow on top of the ghost fishing gear, that might give insight into the time the nets have remained in the water. There is evidence that some of these nets have spent more than three years on the ocean floor.

fish caught in ghost net
Ghost nets cause death and contamination on the seafloor. They break and shade coral communities and destroy the refuge of many marine species / Credit: Micaela Stacey.

Judith Denkinger, professor at the College of Biology and Environmental Sciences at the University of San Francisco Quito, and director of the Ghost Net Project confirms that lost fishing gear gets stuck on the rocks where it tears apart coral and impedes their growth. This causes “severe damage to the marine ecosystem since corals serve as important habitat for fish, and when corals are destroyed, so is marine biodiversity.”

In this sense, Gabriela Navarrete Forero, fisheries ecologist, states that ghost nets also degrade the habitat of commercial species, such as the yellow snapper (Lutjanus argentiventris) and the spotted rose snapper (Lutjanus guttatus). Both species are already under threat because of overfishing in the Bajos de Atacames.

Denkinger explains that “we are losing a diverse ecosystem in the area of Esmeraldas, precisely when the most valuable thing to have is healthy biodiversity as our life support system, because the less diverse ecosystems are, the less they can adapt to changes and will be less resilient. More diversity means more power to adapt to new conditions, such as the changing climate.” 

Denkinger has already conducted research projects on the marine life of Bajos de Atacames in 2006 and can compare the difference between what once existed and of what remains today. “The changes during this period of time are dramatic,” she says. “When we carried out scuba surveys in the area from Esmeraldas to Muisne we found reefs full of life [15 years ago]. It was like an aquarium with all sorts of fishes and landscapes of coral and gorgonians even with some remnants of black coral (Antipathes panamensis), which is all lost now. We still found Spondylus, a mollusk that is now endangered with extinction.” Today seeing the same area, its condition serves as “testimony of how fast humans are able to destroy marine ecosystems like the reefs of Esmeraldas.”

yellow snapper on ruler
This is one of the species impacted by ghost nets in the Bajos de Atacames. This fish is valuable on the local fish market but is also overexploited / Credit: Verónica Rojas.

How can the situation be mitigated?

To mitigate the current situation, Olmedo uses his strong leadership in the community to look for livelihood alternatives for fishers. With members of the Cooperative Nuevo Porvenir, he wants to implement a project to improve whale watching tourism during the humpback whale breeding season, from July to September each year. This tourist activity would help them reduce their economic dependence on fishing during the season. Nevertheless, they would maintain subsistence fishing to feed their families. For this, they would not use nets but rather hooks with bait.

ghost nets upcycled in garden
Once retrieved from the seafloor, the fishing gear can be used in handicrafts, urban crops, vertical gardens, among other uses / Credit: Javier Oña.

To curb piracy, Olmedo highlights the importance of permanent surveillance in the area, with the purpose of identifying all the people who transport themselves in boats.

However, to improve security in general, Captain Aurelio Mejía Espinoza requires a larger budget for the Esmeraldas Port Authority. In 2021, the institution received only 185,000 dollars from the State, of the 245,000 budgeted for that year; and by 2022, it only has 70,000 dollars to cover the entire operation.

Javier Oña and his team at the Ghost Net Project are looking into ways to reuse the recovered nets in agricultural activities, such as urban gardens, vertical gardens, and fences for compost or animals. Denkinger is convinced that the solution to avoid further contamination of the marine environment is to not add any more plastic into the oceans and to change our modern fishing gear to biodegradable products. She adds that in former times, fishers used natural fibers from coconut or cotton to build their nets. “If we could return to these materials, at least we would benefit the ocean as nets would decompose and disappear faster.”

However, Navarrete confirms that fishers have no access to these environmental-friendly materials and that in the Ministry of Production, Foreign Commerce, Investments and Fisheries there is no prohibition on importing and using artificial material in fishing gear (Resolución No. 010-2016 Comex, Anexo 1.). 

“The only material fishers can find in coastal hardware stores are synthetic elements and non-biodegradable elements, and the import of plastic and nylon nets continues since they are cheap. Fishers now buy the nets ready for use and even if they would like to use biodegradable products, they don’t have access to them,” Navarrete tells us.

Although biodegradable nets will be better for marine life and the ecosystem, it does not solve the fishers’ crisis in Esmeraldas. The direct victims of piracy, the widows and the orphans without hope, the families who mourn their lost loved ones, and a country affected by the pollution of its ocean still require a state with coherent policies and means to fight this dilemma. Until then, the attacks of criminal gangs in the sea and off the coasts of Esmeraldas will continue to cause damage and loss, just as they used to in the XVI century when Francis vandalized the seas of the Pacific.

This story was produced with support from the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Spanish in Inmediato Digital on 22 February 2022 and republished in La Hora on 15 March 2022. It has been translated and lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: Small fishing communities are the exit and entry point of local fisheries. Every day, fishers risk being attacked by pirates in the sea. Photo: Lino Morejón.

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