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New Marine Sanctuary in the Galapagos Islands

By now, most everyone with an interest in marine conservation or the Galapagos in particular will be celebrating the creation of the new Darwin and Wolf Marine Sanctuary in the Galapagos Marine Reserve.

But few are aware that there are plans to exclude the Galapagos fishermen from additional areas outside the sanctuary - Areas which, until now, have been the the most productive. If the additional; “no-take” zones go into effect, the impact on the local community will be devastating. As it is, most make only a subsistence living from fishing and once excluded from these areas, they will no longer be able to do even that.

The Sanctuary

The Marine Sanctuary itself is centred on the remote islands of Darwin and Wolf and occupies all of the Galapagos Marine Reserve north of parallel 0.7º; an area of over 15,000 square miles or 40,000 square kilometres.

This is the full extent of increased protection identified in the ministerial press releases which identify the area specifically as a “Shark Sanctuary”..

Bulletins by Ecuador’s Ministry of the Environment:

Neither ministry bulletin mentions any restrictions beyond the “Shark Sanctuary” itself.

GMR & Sanctuary

The Full Picture

At the direction of National Geographic, the Galapagos National Park is planning to impose additional “no-take” zones where artisanal  (commercial) fishing will be prohibited. The no-take zones are not part of the “Shark Sanctuary” but are described as part of the same initiative.

The no-take zones, which have nothing to do with the preservation of sharks, deny Galapagos fishermen access to the most productive areas from which they make their living. The small fisherman in his panga will be hardest hit.

Bulletins by National Geographic:

The Geographic Society refer to “...several smaller no-take areas...” and “.... 21 smaller conservation areas...”.

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Why Do We Need a Sanctuary?

Darwin and Wolf islands are inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Galapagos commercial (artisanal) fishermen are allowed to fish in the area. Fishing by boats from outside the Galapagos is forbidden and no boats, from whatever origin, are allowed to target sharks.

The various announcements and referenced studies (see below) indicate that the fish population, including sharks, is not threatened by the small-scale activities of Galapagos-based boats. On the contrary, it is thriving and now constitutes the highest biomass of shark in the world. From the Ministry of the Environment bulletin:

    “Only small local artisanal fishing cooperatives have been allowed to operate in the area until now. The shark population had been thriving in the giant marine reserve...

And from the National Geographic bulletin:

    “According to a new study by Pelayo Salinas of the Charles Darwin Research Station, Sala, and colleagues, fish biomass there (Darwin and Wolf) is on average 17.5 tons per hectare. That’s about twice as high as the second highest area known to science, the nearby Cocos Island National Park, Costa Rica.

The identified threats are impact of global warming and illegal fishing, particularly by boats from outside Galapagos. From the the Ministry:

    “, but more recently the entire habitat has come under increased pressure from global warming and furtive incursions from industrial trawlers and illegal shark fin hunters. Additional protection is now essential.”

And from National Geographic:

    “Yet the diversity in the Galápagos has been under siege from pirate fishers, who often sell shark fins on the Asian black market. Sharks have shown declines in some areas of the islands, as have groupers and sea cucumbers, which have also been targeted.”

The Sanctuary is expected not only to protect the local shark population but also to help repopulate fish stocks around the globe. From the Ministry bulletin:

    “The new no-take zone sanctuary spans an area almost the size of Belgium, around the most northern islands of Darwin and Wolf.  It is hoped that this new protection will support a hotbed breeding ground for thousands of species that can then grow to full size and help repopulate the world´s oceans.”

How will the Sanctuary Work?

By their own admission, the authorities have had limited success in preventing illegal fishing in the Marine Reserve. Simply designating part of the Reserve as “Sanctuary” will have no benefit unless enforcement is improved.

None of the press releases to date identify what new steps will be taken to enforce the Sanctuary. Enhanced policing will be costly and we only hope the authorities and various benefactors have planned some concrete steps, with the necessary funding, to ensure that the sanctuary really provides more benefit than harm.

Galapagos fishing boats, which have minimal impact in any event, carry transponders which broadcasts their current position to monitoring authorities. We doubt the pirates will be so accommodating.

Who Will Be Affected?


The only tourists to visit Darwin and Wolf are divers on live-aboard dive boats. The operators will surely benefit from the publicity surrounding the creation of the Sanctuary.

The Cruise Boats

Only live-aboard dive boats travel as far north as Darwin and Wolf and they are still free to enter. The activities of the other cruise-boats  will be unaffected and they are still free to enter the “no-take” zones. That is just as well because a large percentage of the most popular terrestrial visit-sites require the boats to enter and drop anchor in the “no-take” zones. The diagram below shows a typical cruise itinerary around the islands, taking in the most popular visit-sites.

Cruise ships dominate the Galapagos tourist market and provide minimal local benefit. Fairly or not, islanders feel that the cards are stacked against them, that regulations are consistently drawn in favour of the cruise operators and that sanctions are unevenly applied. Note that nearly all of the visit-sites landings (as opposed to ports) are located in no-take zones. This correlation feeds the already high level of suspicion and distrust between islanders and cruise operators. It has not escaped their attention that the main proponent of the no-take zones, National Geographic, operates 3 cruise ships: Endeavour, Endeavour II and Islander.

GMR & Sanctuary & Zones & Cruises
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The Galapagos Fishermen:

Despite their cooperation and restraint over the years in preserving the shark population around Darwin and Wolf, the Galapagos fishermen will now be banned from fishing in the Sanctuary area. With  the additional no-take zones, which encompass most of the best fishing areas, fully one third of the Marine Reserve will be off-limits.

Despite the obvious implications of losing their fishing grounds, proponents of the Sanctuary argue that fishermen will actually benefit. According to the Ministry:

    “Evidence from other “no-take” zones shows that it will have net benefits for the local small scale artisanal fishing cooperatives who will see an uptick in fish numbers outside of the protected zone.”

Thus we are asked to believe that future spillover from the protected zones will prove more fruitful than to continue fishing in the zones. We have difficulty believing this, particularly in the coastal no-take zones. Some islands, like Española and Floreana are almost entirely cut-off - There is no spillover area. Furthermore, notwithstanding the alleged benefit, National Geographic is reported to be offering compensation to the fishermen. From the Ministry bulletins:

    “This new agreement for a marine sanctuary has been supported by the National Geographic Foundation, which has offered some compensation to the artisanal fishing cooperatives.”

The National Geographic’s offer of compensation is not consistent with the argument that fishermen will benefit. Regardless, we would be interested to learn the nature of the compensation, how it is calculated and to whom it is offered.

Proponents of the Sanctuary report obtaining the support of the fishermen but there is disagreement over the scope and type of zoning  agreed and by whom. If there was any agreement, that appears to be limited to the main Sanctuary. The rank-and-file fishermen, particularly in San Cristóbal, are horrified to learn the location and extent of the additional no-take zones. If enforced, it spells the end of their traditional way of life.

Imposing the additional no-take zones under cover of the Darwin and Wolf Sanctuary is a master-stroke by the National Geographic and Galápagos National Park. Galápagos fishermen are going to be hurt by the additional no-take zones and are completely opposed to their creation. But when they complain they are simply branded as anti-shark.

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