GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, Ecuador — Just south of the Galapagos' Marchena Island, there's a dive spot known by locals as the "fish arena."
There, within the choppy, cool waters of the Pacific, thousands of colorful fish swim in schools, lobsters poke their long antennae out of rocky outcrops, dolphins bear their young, and moray eels gape menacingly at visitors who swim too close.
Charles Darwin documented the rich biota of these islands in the early 1800s. In more recent times, an unofficial network of local tour boats and fishing vessels has worked to protect it, by keeping an eye out for those who might harm the marine bounty. But the pandemic has grounded this surveillance fleet, creating an opening for outsiders.
Earlier this summer, more than 300 Chinese fishing vessels — many designed to hold 1,000 tons of catch — waited at the marine preserve's border, ready to snatch up sea life as it migrated south toward the waters off Peru and Chile.
By some estimates, China has a "distant water" fishing fleet of 17,000 vessels that has been involved in fishing conflicts off the coasts of West Africa, Argentina and Japan in recent years. Now this fleet is triggering similar anger off Ecuador and Peru, two nations highly dependent on their robust near-shore fisheries.
"This is an attack on our resources," said Angel Yanez Vinueza, the mayor of Santa Cruz canton, the Galapagos' equivalent of a province. "They are killing the species we have protected and polluting our biota with the plastic waste they drop overboard. They are raping the Galapagos."
The fleet is hardly the only threat to this park, a UNESCO world heritage site.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism has plummeted — tour boats have been moored in Santa Cruz Island's Academy Bay for months, while shops and restaurants are shuttered along Puerto Ayora's main drag, Avenida Charles Darwin.
It has laid bare the vulnerability of an economic model that is 90% dependent upon tourism dollars, while also highlighting the extraordinary beauty and remoteness of the islands — and the magic that is lost when thousands of tourists descend daily into this fragile ecosystem.
During a recent visit to the Galapagos, a Los Angeles Times reporting team — the only visitors touring the park by boat — witnessed penguins swimming alongside tropical fish and sea turtles, krill blooms clouding the shallow waters with pink flotsam, and migrating tuna and hammerhead sharks meandering through the darker, deeper waters.