The Rush to Protect Galapagos’ Delicate Marine Ecosystem
Mon, April 19, 2021

The Rush to Protect Galapagos’ Delicate Marine Ecosystem



The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago of volcanic islands and is a part of the Republic of Ecuador. Comprised of 13 major islands, the location of the Galapagos is so special because it sits on both sides of the equator in Southern and Northern Hemispheres. Marine life in these islands is unlike anywhere in the world that it even inspired the theory of evolution. In his book On the Origin of Species in 1859, Charles Darwin mentioned the importance of the unique wildlife thanks to his five-week stay in the Galapagos.


The arrival of hundreds of fishing ships

However, Galapagos ’delicate marine life is now under threat after the Navy detected about 260 Chinese fishing vessels near the archipelago. The fleet’s aggressiveness and size are a big threat to the balance of the species, said former environment minister Yolanda Kakabadse via The Guardian.

Environmentalists have also expressed their concern and the Navy has increased its patrolling to make sure that the Chinese ships will not enter the ecologically delicate islands. While the 260 ships are outside the 188-mile wide exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around Galapagos, their presence has already raised the possibility of serious damage to the sensitive marine ecosystem, Kakabadse added.



Indiscriminate fishing practices

Ecuador’s concern to protect Galapagos is not unfounded. In 2017, a China-flagged vessel Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 has stunned Ecuador authorities as they found the biggest seizure of sharks in the history of the Galapagos. There were about 6,000 frozen sharks on a boat in a huge illegal haul.

“It was a slaughterhouse,” scientist Jonathan Green recalls, describing the images of thousands of sharks in the seized Chinese reefer. He had been studying the world’s largest fish for three decades around Galapagos.

Marine ecologist Pelayo Salinas from the Charles Darwin Foundation also shared with the National Geographic his 2017 research mission on a Galapagos National Park. As an Ecuadorian Navy officer, he was on a patrol ship when their captain spotted a vessel on their radar. Since access to those waters is restricted, they radioed the vessel to determine what it was up to, but they got no response. So, Salinas and three others jumped in an inflatable boat and identified the vessel as Chinese. He narrates that such part of the Galapagos National Park is considered a marine sanctuary and fishing are “absolutely” not allowed.

The National Geographic says that part of Galapagos contains the greatest abundance of sharks in the world the reason why the waters became the target of fishermen who were searching to supply the Asian market with shark meat and fin. Shark populations around the world are, however, in rapid decline. They are vulnerable in the sense that they grow relatively slowly and take years to produce a few young.

The crew of Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 were arrested back then. Salinas said, “Sadly, this is day-to-day business on the ocean.” Despite achieving a high-profile status in scientific worlds and tourism, the Galapagos National Park doesn’t still have all the resources it needs to protect the ecosystem. This is why the “bad guys” continue to make money.  Patrolling the waters come with a cost and it is a challenge for a country that is already in economic crisis.

In another report by Reuters, it said that China has already accepted Ecuador’s supervision of the Chinese fishing vessels near Galapagos. The Chinese authorities themselves vowed a “zero tolerance” policy towards the ships linked to illegal fishing and the firms that own those vessels.



Control of illegal sea cucumber fishing

The Galapagos National Park Service (GNPS), tasked for the administration and management of the Galapagos Marine Reserve, also published a study about illegal sea cucumber fishing in Galapagos. From 1996 to 2006, the highest number of sea cucumber (Isostichopus fuscus) seized by GNPS was 273,800 in 1996 and the second-highest was in 2004 when 128, 788 sea cucumbers were seized by authorities.

In 1996, there were 42 tuna boats captured in the GMR, which gradually declined over the following years: 1997 (40), 1998 (37), 2000 (8), 2001 (3), 2002 (1), 2003 (2), and 2004 (3). The majority of their port of origin was in Ecuador while others in Costa Rica. GNPS did not indicate the nationality of these vessels.



Special protections of the Galapagos zone

Today, drones, Navy patrol ships, and aircraft are monitoring the area to avoid the 2017 incident from happening. Jarrin added that they have already put the global fishing industry on notice that the Galapagos Island zone is off-limits. “We expect our rights to be expected,” he said.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an intergovernmental economic organization founded to stimulate economic progress and world trade, shared that China has a total of 798, 588 fishing vessels in 2005 but these declined to 682, 416 in 2018.  Despite that, China remained the world’s biggest seafood exporter and its population consumes a whopping 41 kilograms per capita per year.



International tourism revenue in Ecuador

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) states that about 250,000 tourists visit the archipelago every year. In 2017, more than 275,000 travelers visited the Galapagos Islands. Of that number, about 182,037 were foreigners and 93,780 were Ecuadorians. Five percent of the visitors were from the United Kingdom followed by Germany (4%) and Canada and Australia both at three percent.

Tortuga Bay is one of the most popular tourist sites in the Galapagos. Another popular stop is the Interpretation Center of San Cristobal, which shows the settlement and history of the islands, including conservation, natural history, and human history. According to database company Statista, Ecuador generated US$1.87 billion of revenue for international tourism while the country has remained focused on conserving the Galapagos Islands.

The Galapagos Islands have long been celebrated for its unique biodiversity and unique wildlife. Since it’s not the first time that fishing vessels arrive in the Galapagos and stirred alarm over illegal fishing practices, a firmer stance from the authorities is needed.