Chinese fishing vessels operating near the Galapagos Islands have reportedly been falsely reporting their location as New Zealand.
Around 260 of them arrived at the Unesco world heritage site in July, Stuff reports, staying in international waters but raising alarm in Ecuador, which governs the eastern Pacific islands.
The Chinese ships are accused of illegally fishing for sharks. Three years ago a Chinese vessel was caught near the islands with 6000 frozen sharks aboard, resulting in millions of dollars in fines and jail time for the crew.
"We are on alert, [carrying out] surveillance, patrolling to avoid an incident such as what happened in 2017," Ecuador's defense minister Oswaldo Jarrin said last week, according to a report in industry magazine Maritime Executive.
The Telegraph quoted local scientists as accusing the Chinese fleet of throwing plastic waste overboard and not following regulations to minimise environmental damage.
"It is not unusual to find the odd bottle washed up from the other side of the world, but I have never seen a quantity like this before and all the Mandarin labels are intact suggesting they were recently disposed of," said Charles Darwin Foundation biologist Esme Plunkett.
This time, six of the vessels have apparently been faking their true location - sending out falsified signals which puts them between the Chatham Islands and New Zealand, about 10,000km away.
Five of the six reportedly have permission to look for squid, and it's unclear why they're pretending to be in New Zealand, a spokesperson for fishing watchdog Skytruth told Stuff. The signals disappeared on Tuesday night.
Skytruth said satellite imagery shows no Chinese-flagged vessels in New Zealand waters, but the Ministry for Primary Industries told Stuff it had no reason to believe the vessels were faking their locations.
Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash and Foreign Minister Winston Peters reportedly didn't respond to enquiries.
China said last week it was operating legally and denied claims its crews were abusing the environment.
"The Galapagos Islands are an important natural reserve of Ecuador and a precious natural and cultural heritage for all mankind. China understands, respects and supports Ecuador's measures to protect the marine environment and resources.
"We have found that all Chinese fishing boats are operating in the high seas outside the exclusive economic zone of the Galapagos Islands in a normal and lawful manner."
Flora and fauna on the Galapagos Islands were key in helping biologist Charles Darwin develop his theory of evolution.