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Plundering the Galápagos

The Galápagos reserve, off the coast of Ecuador, boasts the highest concentration of sharks of all the worlds oceans. 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 and shark finning is banned. 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. So where are these fishers coming from? How do they get away with plundering the protected area? And how can we stop them?


Sharks illegally fished within the Galápagos Marine Reserve (Image Credit: Stephen Frink WaterHouse Marine Images / Shutterstock)

A Safe Haven?

In recent years anger and disbelief at the behaviour of fishing fleets illegally plundering the Galápagos marine reserve 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 (Carr et al, 2013; Bonaccorso et al, 2021).

As there are many shark nursery habitats there, the Galápagos is a critical region for many species of threatened sharks (Image Credit: Rodolfo Asar / Shutterstock)

These fisheries pose a huge threat to conservation efforts because the Galápagos marine reserve is home to as many as 40 different shark species. The area is a critical habitat for several threatened species, such as Vulnerable silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformes) (Carr et al, 2013; Salinas-de-León et al, 2016; IUCN, 2020).


The region is also a critical habitat for many species. Endangered whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) (IUCN, 2020) and Near Threatened’ blacktip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus) (IUCN, 2020) use the area to birth their pups (known as “parturition habitats”) (Salinas-de-León et al, 2016).


The Galápagos is one of last places where large schools of Critically Endangered scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini) (IUCN, 2020) 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”) (Salinas-de-León et al, 2016).


Therefore 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).


Many species, like these scalloped hammerheads, are migratory, so they cannot be protected by Ecuadorian law once they leave the Galápagos Marine Reserve (Image Credit: Stealthwater / WikimediaCommons)

Caught Red Handed!

The suspicious fleets that are regularly sited working within the marine reserve 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 (Alava et al, 2017).

As many shark species are wide-ranging or migratory, they often roam in and out of the protected area of the Galápagos. Once leaving the reserve, the laws can no longer protect them, so these sharks can fall victim to 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! Between 2001 and 2007, the Ecuadorian authorities seized a total of 29 catches of sharks that were illegally caught within the marine reserve (Carr et al, 2013; Alava et al, 2017; Bonaccorso et al, 2021).



Fighting Back

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; Bonaccorso et al, 2021).

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".

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!


References

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. Access online.


Bonaccorso E, Ordóñez-Garza N, Pazmiño DA, Hearn A, Páez-Rosas D, Cruz S, Muñoz-Pérez JP, Espinoza E, Suárez J, Muñoz-Rosado LD, Vizuete A, Chaves JA, de Lourde Torres M, Bustos W, RDueda, Hirschfeld M & Guayasamin, JM (2021). International fisheries threaten globally endangered sharks in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean: the case of the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 reefer vessel seized within the Galápagos Marine Reserve. Scientific Reports, 11:1, 14959. Access online.


Carr LA, Stier AC, Fietz K, Montero I, Gallagher AJ & Bruno JF (2013). Illegal shark fishing in the Galápagos Marine Reserve. Marine Policy, 39, 317-321. Access online.


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.



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