What’s Going in the Galápagos Islands?

What’s Happening in the Galápagos Islands?

SINCE THE SHUTDOWN

On March 16, Ecuador shut down all travel on the mainland and in the Galápagos Islands. 

The economy is almost entirely dependent on tourism and the Galapagos were just about to enter their high season. Without tourism, the economy ground to a halt and many are going hungry with no end in sight.

As months turned into weeks, a number of different local solutions from residents have been proposed, including:

  • Reintroduce long-line fishing for local fisherman 
  • Open airports to direct international flights instead of stopping in Guayaquil, where the pandemic is worse
  • Redistribute jobs to permanent residents 
  • Suspend rent/bill payments during state of emergency

Officials stand by local conservation policies & have not loosened local fishing regulations. Many feel that their voices are not being heard as they start to go hungry.

SHARK FIN SEIZURE

On May 6, news breaks that 13 tons of shark fins originating from Ecuador were seized in Hong Kong. This seizure is the single largest shark fin seizure in Hong Kong history. The market value for these sharks is a mere $8.4 million dollars. Many are left wondering how this kind of volume can originate from a single origin.

An estimated 38,500 sharks died as a part of this shipment, mostly silky and thresher sharks (IUCN-listed near-threatened and vulnerable species, respectively.)

A single living shark in the Galapagos is worth an estimated $360,000 per year in annual tourism dollars, representing a conservative $5.4M per shark over the course of its life. These 38,500 sharks would represent an estimated $207.9 trillion dollars in lost revenue over the course of their lives.

Their market value is less than .01% of their value alive

SINCE THE REOPENING

Officially, the Galapagos Islands reopened to tourism on July 1. However, few have returned to the islands, largely due to the fact that are very few flights into the islands.

Even if you observe all testing guidelines in place, flights in the coming months are mostly non-existent. The fate of airlines in the region is also unclear. Despite the promise of re-opened borders, no one knows when tourism will really begin again in the islands.

Many locals have stated that they do not feel that their voices have been heard. With tensions running high, things culminated in a mostly civil scuffle between residents and officials at a meeting of the Regional Governing Council on July 7.

Many have turned to bartering and at-risk households are mostly dependent on the generosity of others. 

CHINESE FISHING FLEET

On July 16, news outlets reported that the Ecuadorian armada has been monitoring 260+ Chinese fishing vessels near these protected areas for ten days.

These fleets have been appearing annually in or near the islands since 2017. Each year, they return in larger numbers and with better technology.

The fleet includes ships for fishing, processing, storing & refueling, creating a self-sufficient industry at sea. They constantly seek out remote destinations as their fisheries have already been entirely depleted.

These distant-water fishing fleets (DWF) can be found worldwide. The 260-300 vessels in the Galapagos represents less than 2% of the staggering size of the entire Chinese DWF fleet of nearly 17,000 vessels.

INTERNATIONAL WATERS

On July 22, the Ecuadorian government issued a statement that they are monitoring the situation, but that the fleet is technically not breaking any laws.

There is a marine-protected “no-take” area (MPA) around the islands & two Economic Exclusion Zones (ZEE). Foreign fishing in any of these areas would be illegal.

There is a small band between the insular & continental ZEE that is considered international waters. So far, the fleet has appeared to stay in international waters.

FU YUAN YU LENG 999 (2017)

There is historical reason to believe that these vessels will not continue to observe legal boundaries. In August 2017, a Chinese fishing vessel, the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 was caught fishing within the Galapagos marine-protected area and captured by the Ecuadorian armada.

This ship was part of a fleet of 297 Chinese vessels and its log showed that it contained nearly 300 tons of illegally-caught fish and bycatch. There were approx. 6,600 dead sharks onboard, including hammerheads and other threatened and endangered species.

Ultimately, 20 Chinese fishermen were jailed for up to four years and fined $5.9 million dollars, approx. the amount of revenue a single living shark would make generate in tourism dollars in its lifetime. These catastrophic losses continue to pile up worldwide.

WHAT ABOUT THAT PHOTO THAT WAS “FAKE NEWS”?

A photo began circulating on social media last week that claimed to be an image of the Chinese fleet taken by a fisherman in the Galapagos Islands.

The photo is real and does show the scale of these types of DWF fleets BUT the photo was taken in Argentina, NOT in Ecuador or the Galapagos. Fleets like this are operating worldwide and pose an equal threat elsewhere.

LOSING ESPERANZA, OR HOPE, THE WHALE SHARK

Esperanza, or “Hope,” was tagged as part of the Galapagos Whale Shark Project in September 2019.

After 8 months of tracking, researchers report that her signal was lost at the end of May 2020 when she entered an area of extreme fishing pressure and high risk of capture while en route back to the islands.

Though it could be a coincidence, 2 pieces of evidence point to her falling victim to distant-water fishing:

  • Her signal was perfect in the last 30 min of transmission, indicating the tag was most likely fully out of water 
  • Her tag was travelling at 7-8 knots at the end of her transmission, while whale sharks are not known to exceed 3 knots

WHY IS THIS SUCH A BIG DEAL?

These distant-water fleets (DWF) have to visit remote locales like the Galapagos because they have already depleted their own fisheries at an unsustainable rate.

These 260-300 vessels represent less than 2% of the estimated 17,000 vessels in Chinese DWF worldwide.

Animals don’t understand borders and will continue to pass through these fleets in their regular migration patterns, even if the ships remain in international waters.

Tropical coastal ecosystems are inherently fragile and billions worldwide are dependent upon marine ecosystems and their resources to maintain subsistence living, not just in the Galapagos

WHAT CAN I DO TO SUPPORT THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS?

Share this post and the work of @sosgalapagos with others – not everyone can read Spanish, but reaching other audiences is critical!

Show your support to LOCAL Galapaguenos, not companies or foreign non-profits who happen to have a foothold in the Islands. Not sure where to start? Send us a DM

Check your sources before posting new and breaking news. Consider if the facts may be skewed or biased by the person reporting them. Be skeptical of information that cannot be independently verified.

Check free fleet monitoring platforms (like Global Fishing Watch or Fleet Mon) to ensure that these vessels are staying in international waters – island WiFi doesn’t always make this type of monitoring easy!

Educate others on the reality of distant-water fishing fleets. See if there are distant-water fleets near you or near other protected areas

Pay attention to who is reporting news about these fleets and who is staying silent. Remember which groups have failed to act and aid those in the islands. Choose to not support and to not patronize these organizations when post-pandemic travel resumes.

  • Consider the sourcing of fish and seafood if this is a regular part of your diet. 
  • Did you know? Bycatch from DWF fleets is often used for fish meal at prawn  (shrimp) farms overseas, that are then sold back to your as frozen prawns or shrimp in your local grocery store.

Take this time at home during the pandemic to really consider how to travel ethically. Find ways to go outside your comfort zone and source food, tours and vacation stays that benefit local populations directly even when it means more work or preparation. Learn to be a discerning traveler.


Informing and sharing news on marine life, flora, fauna and conservation in the Galápagos Islands since 2017
© SOS Galápagos, 2020

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