Plundering the Galápagos
Updated: Apr 27, 2021
The Galápagos reserve, off the coast of Ecuador, boasts the highest concentration of sharks of all the worlds oceans (Salinas-de-León et al, 2016). The remarkable place was was declared a U.N. World Heritage site in 1979. In order to preserve this pristine environment, protection of the Galápagos has included blanket bans on industrial fishing since 1998. Only very small-scale artisanal fishing is allowed in certain areas and some areas are designated permanently as “no-take zones”, meaning any and all fishing (known as “extraction”) is completely prohibited and punishable by law. Yet, there are many incidents every year, when authorities seize illegal catches within the reserve. Whatsmore, these laws do not have power outside of the marine reserve boundaries and enormous industrial fishing fleets are commonly found waiting at the border to plunder fish from these rich waters (Alava et al, 2017).
In recent years anger and disbelief at the behaviour of these fishing fleets has been growing globally. There has been multiple reports on international news stations, showing the scale of the problem; with massive fleets (visible even from satellites!) aggregating at the marine reserve border, lining up and waiting for marine animals to stray out of the protected region.
These fisheries pose a huge threat to conservation efforts because the Galápagos marine reserve is a critical habitat for several threatened shark species; for the ‘critically endangered’ scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini) the Galápagos is one of last places where large schools can still be found and they use shallow waters in the reserve during their first few months of life to forage and grow, whilst protected from predators ( we call these areas “nursery habitats”). The region is also an important habitat for ‘endangered’ whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) and ‘near-threatened’ blacktip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus), as it is thought they use the area to birth their pups (known as “parturition habitats”). The region also supports ‘vulnerable’ silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformes) (IUCN, 2020). The Galápagos reserve could be critical for boosting populations of these endangered shark species, as enforcing no-take zones in their nursery and parturition areas will mean that more juveniles survive to the age of maturity (we call this "recruitment") (Salinas-de-León et al, 2016).
The suspicious fleets are predominantly made up of vessels flying the Chinese flag. These fishers are especially troublesome because they target sharks for their fins. Shark fin soup is an expensive delicacy in China and therefore, finning is an extremely lucrative industry for Chinese fisheries. As many shark species are wide-ranging or migratory, they often roam in and out of the protected area of the Galápagos, so can fall victim to these fisheries (Alava et al, 2017).
Whatsmore, the Chinese fishing fleets are notorious for their rule-breaking even within the marine reserve! Chinese vessels have been caught fishing inside the protected area, and catches of sharks and their fins have been seized on multiple occasions!
In 2017, in a landmark case, the captain and 30 fishermen of the Fu Yuan Yu Weng 999 were arrested 20 miles within the reserve border, after authorities discovered that six of the holds of the 100m long cargo ship were filled with 300 tonnes of dead sharks, including several endangered species. These fishers were imprisoned and fined $5.9 million (Alava et al, 2017).
The Ecuadorian authorities have been making efforts to protect their marine reserve, involving not only the park authorities, but even the Ecuadorian Navy! Their Defence Minister, Oswaldo Jarrín stated that they feel very suspicious of the fishing presence at the border of the protected area:
"We are on alert, conducting surveillance to avoid an incident such as what happened in 2017".
- Oswaldo Jarrín, Ecuador Defense Minster
Currently, it seems that this monstrous fleet has been respectful of the boundary and are staying within an international water corridor between the Galápagos and mainland Southern America, but Ecuador has stated that they will take action if they attempt to enter the Ecuador Ecological Zone (EEZ). It seems the situation remains on a knife-edge and only time will tell if this looming threat to the Galápagos advances or dissipates.
If you would like to get involved or do your part to help you can:
Sign the petition to expand the Galápagos reserve and push these fleets further away from critical shark habitats!
Choose to eat only sustainably sourced fish. You can choose to only buy species of fish which are not threatened using the Marine Conservation Society guide or choose to buy only from sustainable fisheries by looking for sustainability logos on packaging.
Support ethical ecotourism companies when travelling in Ecuador, ensuring that the Galápagos Marine Reserve is valued for its live, rather than extracted wildlife resources.
Choose not to eat shark fin soup and to not buy dried shark fin products.
Go a step further and sign petitions towards banning shark finning globally, such as at the Humane Society International.
Stay up-to-date by following groups on social media, such as Stop Shark Finning.
Donate to organisations working for conservation of the Galápagos, such as The Galapagos Conservation Trust. Here you can also buy t-shirts and other merchandise to advertise your support, or you could adopt a shark… that is a great Christmas gift!
Alava JJ, Barragán-Paladines MJ, Denkinger J, Muñoz-Abril L, Jiménez PJ, Paladines F, Valle CA, Tirapé A, Gaibor N, Calle M, Calle P, Reyes H, Espinoza E & Grove JS (2017). Massive Chinese feel jeopardizes threatened shark species around the Galápagos marine reserve and waters of Ecuador: Implications for national and international fisheries policy. International Journal of Fisheries Science and Research, 1:1001.
Salinas-de-León P, Acuña-Marrero D, Rastoin E, Friedlander AM, Donovan M & Sala E (2016). Largest global shark biomass found in the northern Galápagos Islands of Darwin and Wolf. PeerJ, 4:e1911. Access online.
By Sophie A. Maycock for SharkSpeak.