Lack of protection in protected marine reserves: How the Galapagos leads in policy, fails in practice

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Just because an area is named a marine reserve and a UNESCO heritage site does not mean that it is pristine and well-protected.

The 51,000 square miles of ocean surrounding the Galapagos islands represent the second-largest marine reserve in the world and the largest in a developing country. With growing populations and high economic incentive, the waters of the Galapagos face a rising threat of illegal fishing.

Shark fishing is a large part of the problem, as their fins are highly coveted in many parts of Asia. Even though the Galapagos Marine Reserve was established in 1994, it wasn’t until 2003 that the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment completely outlawed shark fishing. But as recently as 2011, a boat carrying 379 sharks was found in the waters around Isla Genovesa.

Scientists at the Galapagos Science Center identified each of the 379 sharks. The catch represented eight different species, including the threatened Galapagos Shark, and consisted mainly of large females and juveniles. The amount of females is of particular concern, as less females means less young in the next generation and leads to population decline.

Although this particular shark-fishing boat was found around Isla Genovesa, one of the islands closest to the reserve boundary, forensic evidence found that the sharks were collected all throughout the islands. The boat had circumnavigated the entire archipelago, but was not stopped until after it had made its 379th kill. The fact that this boat had been fishing for so long, in so many different areas, without being caught is entirely the fault of reserve enforcement.

This is not to say all fishing within the reserve is illegal—for many people who live on the islands, fishing means sustenance. There are a certain number of registered small-scale fishing boats that are permitted to fish certain species, with quotas that they may not exceed. But even though these laws exist, the actual level of control on the fishermen varies.

A survey published by MIT found that the number of registered fishermen in the Galapagos rose from 156 to 956 between 1971 and 2002. And that only accounts for the registered fishermenthe same study also recorded 1,183 lobster fisherman in the islands in one year, only 682 of whom were registered. This is further proof that the Ecuadorian Government has not made environmental law enforcement enough of a priority.

According to census data from 2000, the population growth rate in the Galapagos is significantly greater than in any other country in South America. With more permanent residents on the islands, there are more people to feed and more people trying to make a living from fishing than can properly be sustained and controlled by the government.

Fisherman have appealed to raise catch quotas, but this has caused violence between conservationists and local fishermen. In November of 2000, Juan Chavez, a conservationist and director of the Charles Darwin Research Station, was rescued from a mangrove swamp by Ecuadorian navy special forces after fishermen ransacked his home and threatened to kill him. Along with the attacks on Chavez, the fishermen destroyed telephone lines, blocked roads, burned national park offices and held a Galapagos giant tortoise hostage.

Because of the lack of enforcement by the Ecuadorian government, many conservation organizations have tried to take maters into their own hands. The World Wildlife Foundation invested in improving fishery management and education on sustainable fishing practices, along with general protection of the Galapagos Marine Reserve. The international eco-terrorist organization Sea Shepard also regularly patrols the Galapagos and has been known to hack into the radio waves used to survey the Galapagos reserve for illegal fishing. Despite their efforts, Sea Sheppard estimates that between 10-100 miles of illegal line is laid in the Galapagos every day. This dispiriting hodge-podge of international aid further proves that although legislation is important, only enforcement can truly protect a reserve.