Archive: The Archipelago Enchanted By Good Intentions (2019)

The Archipelago Enchanted By Good Intentions

The Galapagos Marine Reserve is the second largest in the world after Antarctica. Now the Vice President of the Republic has said that he will seek to expand it. It seems like a wise decision, however expanding the reserve, in the current circumstances of care and patrol, this will not help.

When one looks at the Global Fishing map, Galapagos appears surrounded by a wall of white dots: thousands of fishing boats at the foot of the second largest marine reserve in the world. 

Some, the greediest, enter the reserve, where industrial fishing is prohibited, take what they want and leave. This presence prompted Ecuador’s Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner to make a bombastic announcement. 

At the end of April 2019 from the Deepwater Port of Posorja, Sonnenholzner said that the Ecuadorian government will promote “an international process” to request the expansion of the Galapagos marine reserve and bring it  “to the world’s consideration ”. 

But experts say that expanding the reserve, in the current circumstances of care and patrol, will do nothing.

“The marine reserves,” says Wildlife Trusts- an organization dedicated to protecting nature, “are areas designed to protect habitat, feeding, breeding and life of the species living in the sea.” In them, “certain harmful activities are restricted”, according to the report. Totally Protected Marine Reserves of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (Like protected forests, they are fragile ecosystems, where there are several species of animals, many times unique in the world. 

When a marine reserve functions properly, there is an increase in individuals of each marine species, especially those that could be in danger. But when not, marine fauna diminishes, in the worst case. For example, 90% of the coral reef in the Chagos archipelago – off the African shores of the Indian Ocean – was dead in 1998. After the creation of a marine reserve in 2010, it managed to recover. Saving the coral reefs was vital because they generate oxygen, can reduce the force of the waves, and are the best protection “against the strong effect of tropical storms and hurricanes,” according to the Journal of Sciences of the Autonomous University of Mexico. In addition, they are key places for breeding, feeding and reproduction of species. Reefs have survived the ice age, the destruction of the dinosaurs, but not the destruction by humans. The solution is there: real marine reserves, beyond the declarations on paper. 

The [marine reserve] in Galapagos has an area of ​​133 thousand square kilometers — about 36 times the size of Quito, the largest city in Ecuador. It was created only in 1998, although the care of the islands began in 1974 with the Land Management Plan. The plan was to create a strip of two nautical miles (a little more than 3,704 kilometers) around each island. 

 The delimitation sought to create a kind of protective fence for the Galapagos. A quarter of a century later, the Organic Law of the Special Regime for the Conservation and Sustainable Development of Galapagos (LOREG) expanded the marine protected area and formally created the Galapagos marine reserve. Judith Denkinger, professor in marine mammals at the Universidad San Francisco in Quito, describes [the Galapagos marine reserve] as “a focal site in outcrops, biodiversity and high productivity.” Expanding it would be excellent news. But only if there is the money and resources to take care of it. 

Ecuador does not have them: the Galapagos marine reserve is the second largest in the world after that of Antarctica, but one of the worst monitored. Galapagos has 2,900 marine species, of which 18% are endemic – which only exist in one place in the world – according to UNESCO. But its percentage of species in danger of disappearing has not decreased. The whale shark, the smooth hammerhead shark and the basking shark, for example, remain on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN, for its acronym in English). For Judith Denkinger, the reserve does not fulfill its purpose: “because if it is a marine reserve, the marine resources have to improve”. According to Denkinger, species such as cod, cucumber and lobsters are endangered by overfishing. 

The capture of several of these species is due, in part, to the mobility of the animals in the reserve. Xavier Romero, a consultant in aquatic pathology, says that when you think about the limits of the marine reserve, it is not considered that there are certain animals that feed outside of them. “There is a recent study on fur seals on Fernandina Island that feed outside the reserve” where they are exposed to all hooks. Expanding the reserve to those areas would help if there are funds, personnel, and equipment to care for it; if not, it will only be to draw an imaginary line, which will not do anything real for the conservation of the species. 

But for the Ecuadorian authorities – devotees of optimism or denial, depending on how you want to see it – the reserve is well preserved. “We have absolutely controlled everything that happens in the Galapagos Marine Reserve,” says Jorge Carrión, director of the Galapagos National Park, the state entity in charge of administering, managing and caring for the Galapagos National Park and Marine Reserve. 

The idea repeats itself, and it even seems cyclical. The ex-director of the Park, Walter Bustos, says that the marine reserve and Galapagos “are much better in the state of conservation.” According to Bustos, “inside it is protected, but outside it is full of fishing boats.”  For the former Minister of the Environment, Tarsicio Granizo, control within the marine reserve is an “example of Latin America and the world.  “The gap between what officials and former officials say, remains in constant contradiction to what independent experts and scientists claim. 

Nor there will be fish in the world’s seas by 2048 if large-scale fishing continues with the current voracity. The oceans could become huge water deserts. Marine reserves are a kind of insurance against that dire prediction. Oswaldo Rosero, a specialist in maritime domain control and surveillance, says that one of the objectives of the reserves is to avoid an imbalance between “what I am getting from fishing and what I am producing” in the reserve. When there is an imbalance, increasing the size of the marine reserve is a good measure. As it should happen in the Galapagos case —as long as there are the economic and technical possibilities to be able to monitor such an extensive space. 

There are fully protected marine reserves, such as the Poor Knights Islands in New Zealand, where fishing and other extractive or harmful human uses are completely off limits. In others, such as the Galapagos, only small-scale fishing is allowed. For example, [existence of] the multiple use zone and the subzone of conservation [permits both] extractive and non-extractive use. 

Although it may sound inconvenient to say so, artisanal fishing is also a problem in Galapagos. The lack of education and little control have made it threaten the conservation of the Marine Reserve. Judith Denkinger, who has lived in the Galapagos for a long time, says that, for example, there is an overfishing with the cod that is taken to the mainland, “although it is fished only by Galapagos.” 

The artisanal longline fleet of continental Ecuador and the artisanal Galapagueno fleet are a constant danger. The first is made up of more than 45 thousand vessels authorized to land sharks, as long as they are labeled as ‘bycatch’. So “incidental” that 250 thousand sharks are caught per year. 

The same happens with the artisanal fleet. In 2016, a new experimental longline fishing pilot program within the marine reserve yielded the same results: large numbers of sharks being caught.

In Galapagos, industrial fishing is prohibited – in theory. In practice, several vessels are dedicated to it within the limits of the reserve. In some cases, they sometimes fish within the reserve. 

On August 13, 2017, the Chinese ship Yuan Yu Leng 999 was detained within the reserve. It carried 300 tons of shark species such as hammerhead, silky, fox, bigeye and mako, several of them in danger of extinction. The owners of the boat defended themselves saying that the boat was passing through, that the fishing was not from the Galapagos. 

The scandal was international. According to National Geographic, the ship was found by chance: someone forgot to turn off the satellite positioner that all ships have and that many turn off to enter forbidden waters. When the ship’s system is on and one enters the marine reserve, an alarm from the command control room immediately provides “a call or a message the moment a ship has passed the marine reserve line of Galapagos”, says Jorge Carrión. But the question is how they are detected by ships whose satellite positioning is off.

Carrión says that although it is more difficult to locate them, “we have an entire independent predictive system ”that would allow [researches] to know where the vessels come from and also the history of the vessels. 

The authorities – optimists, deniers, what difference does it make? – say that it is very difficult to evade surveillance. They trust that through surveillance systems with radio and satellite systems, no ship can cross the reserve. The system allows to continue detecting the location and activity that fishing boats are doing. Boats should always keep it on. Keeping it disabled is illegal and could even lead to ship collisions. But, it is possible that illegal fishing vessels deactivate this system to enter the marine reserve without being detected.

Beyond the issue of xenophobia, the danger is not only the Chinese vessels but the national ones, the Peruvian ones and all the ships that approach the reserve limits every day and turn off their positioning systems. 

In addition to satellite surveillance, the Galapagos National Park has 12 teams to monitor 145 thousand square kilometers of marine reserve. Three oceanic boats, seven speedboats, a light aircraft and a floating base, which is under maintenance. Jorge Carrión says that ” there is always one boat per day that is doing patrols in the sights or on the edges of the Galapagos marine reserve, but we also have the support of the light aircraft and ocean vessels” in special cases, that require much more careful planning. 

It sounds good, but there is a gap between what Carrión says and what various experts claim. In Galapagos, “there is no patrolling,” says Xavier Romero. For him, that is the problem of “many reserves that are declared but do not have a surveillance system that must be accompanied or the management plan that ends in action.” According to Judith Denkinger, the patrols are more about controlling tourism than fishing.

But for Jorge Carrión, surveillance is doubled, “While we do the controls of the tourist activity, the boats go through the different visit sites throughout the archipelago and in turn are also controlling any illicit activity that could be taking place in Galapagos.” The question is whether, in such a large marine space, two monsters can be guarded or if double surveillance ends up not monitoring tourism or illegal fishing.

Expanding a marine reserve can take years. It happened in Peru, where from 2014 to the present the creation of the Mar Tropical de Grau National Reserve is being discussed. Political will, the support of citizens and the need to take care of marine resources are some of the factors that intervene. Sandra Bessudo, director of the Malpelo Foundation and Other Marine Ecosystems in Colombia, says that to create or expand a protected area there are environmental technical conditions that must be considered. As it expands, she says, “you have to think about increasing control and surveillance.” Bessudo explains that one of the measures to improve the control of marine protected areas are new technologies. Technologies, which require resources, one of the main limitations facing Galapagos and its marine reserve. 


Scarce resources and little political will make Galapagos an easy trophy to show off, but difficult to care for. For Jorge Carrión, the technical capacity to control the marine reserve is one of the points that must be considered. Carrión says they are starting the scientific and technical analyzes required for a possible expansion. “We do not want to simply expand by expanding this decision, it has to respond to technical and scientific parameters that tell us what the true size is that the Galapagos Marine Reserve requires to be able to adequately protect resources and biodiversity.” If the current Galapagos reserve is not monitored, it is almost utopian to think that we will be able to cope with a larger one. The challenge becomes much more difficult.

21 years after the marine reserve was created, we still do not understand the islands and the importance of their marine area. Without it, the Galapagos ecosystems could not survive, according to the Charles Darwin Foundation. “Many native and endemic species depend entirely on the sea and on the evolutionary and ecological processes that occur on land, but which are directly related to the sea,” explains the Charles Darwin Foundation on its website. 


The current Galapagos Marine Reserve is not being adequately protected. From the Deepwater Port, the vice president, Otto Sonnenholzner, announced the possible expansion of the Galapagos marine reserve and said it as if it were something simple. Just a matter of issuing a decree and expanding. But it’s not like that. Without enough money to invest in care, marine reserves like the one in the Galapagos can simply become paper reserves: places where good intentions abound, but vigilance and monitoring are lacking.

And, although it sounds obvious, among the species are human beings. For Walter Bustos, the conservation of the marine reserve is also economically important. “Degraded ocean spaces generate poverty, they are empty spaces where there are no longer fish, there is no fishing, there is no facility that is generated to obtain natural, marine resources.” It has already happened in Somalia, whose sea was preyed upon by dozens of international fleets. With nothing to fish for, his fishermen had to find new jobs: since the mid-2000s they have been hijacking boats and demanding ransoms for them. A well-defined and well-cared for marine reserve saves not only endemic species, but people from these desperate measures. It’s importance exceeds the good intentions and bombastic proposals of the politicians of the day.

Ana Cristina Basantes (Ecuador 1995) GK journalist. [Her work] covers the migration of women and children displaced by the Venezuelan humanitarian crisis and conducts a series of videos on the life of the Amazonian peoples of Ecuador.

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