Tourist Preferences for Seamount Conservation in the Galapagos Marine Reserve

Excerpts from “Tourist Preferences for Seamount Conservation in the Galapagos Marine Reserve”

Frontiers in Marine Science, 21 January 2021 |

Sierra Ison (1,2), Theo Ison (3,4), Patricia Marti-Puig (4), Katherine Needham (3), Michael K. Tanner (5) and J. Murray Roberts (3)

(1) Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (Hobart, TAS, Australia)
(2) Centre for Marine Socioecology, University of Tasmania (Hobart, TAS, Australia)
(3) School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh (Edinburgh, UK)
(4) Charles Darwin Foundation (Puerto Ayora, Ecuador)
(5) Charles Darwin Research Station, Charles Darwin Foundation (Puerto Ayora, Ecuador)


  • Respondents were willing to pay on average US$48.93 in increased entrance fees to the Galapagos Marine Reserve.
  • Tourists placed equal emphasis on management plans which aimed to benefit local people’s livelihoods, science and tourism.

Seamounts provide oases of hard substrate in the deep sea that are frequently associated with locally enhanced biological productivity and diversity. There is now increasing recognition of their ecological and socio-economic importance. However, management strategies for these habitats are constrained not only by limited ecological understanding but by the general public’s understanding of the pressures facing these ecosystems.

This study adds to the growing literature on willingness to pay for conservation of deep-sea ecosystems and species by undertaking a stated preference survey to assess tourist’s awareness of seamounts and their preferences for protection within the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Visitors’ perceptions of seamount biodiversity must be studied because tourists are key drivers of the Galapagos economy and account for 41% of the Marine Reserve budget.

Our survey captured the attitudes, perceptions and willingness to pay of tourists for an increase in the entrance fee to the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Results showed tourists were willing to pay on average US$48.93 in addition to existing entrance fees.

The results of this study support the willingness to develop a multiuse management plan for the Galapagos Marine Reserve, balancing conservation, local communities livelihoods and sustainable tourism. Our results evidence a willingness to support and fund conservation, which is of critical importance to both the Galapagos National Park and local non-governmental organizations heavily reliant for their work on entrance fees and donations respectively.

Overall, the conclusion from this study is that, despite limited knowledge, visitors of the Galapagos Islands attach positive and significant values to the conservation of seamount biodiversity.


Offshore seamounts are prevalent and pervasive underwater ecosystems and make up one of the largest biomes of the deep-sea (Staudigel et al., 2010Wessel et al., 2010). Seamounts are extinct underwater volcanoes that may rise hundreds or even thousands of meters above the surrounding seafloor. While estimates vary, it is believed that there may be over 100,000 seamounts greater than 1 km high that remain uncharted globally (Wessel et al., 2010). Seamount habitats and biodiversity have gained increased academic interest because of their unique ecological and socioeconomic value (Ramirez-Llodra, 2020).

They provide many ecosystem services that present use and non-use values to human populations such as fisheries, biodiversity and habitat conservation (for current and future generations), mining, pharmaceuticals and cultural and recreational values (Ressurreição and Giacomello, 2013). Yet, in recent decades, human pressures on seamounts, notably the physical damage caused by bottom trawling, has threatened their biodiversity and resilience (Rogers, 2019). Several of the cold-water corals that can dominate seamount benthic communities are also highly vulnerable to ocean acidification and projected increased temperatures (Roberts and Cairns, 2014Roberts et al., 2016).

Damage to seamounts and their overexploitation can also have widespread consequences on human’s food security and medicinal use (Pitcher et al., 2007). Any additional or new activity, or the intensification of an ongoing activity, could become the tipping point for the collapse of a seamount ecosystem. Therefore, growing awareness of human pressures on seamounts, coupled with their important ecological roles in maintaining biodiversity and food webs (Morato et al., 2010) has made seamounts management and conservation a growing policy priority. It is important to recognize that significant gaps remain in our current knowledge of global seamount ecology and biodiversity largely due to their depth and remoteness limiting research (Danovaro et al., 2020).

[. . .] Beyond the lack of fundamental scientific knowledge, there are significant additional barriers to seamount ecosystem management. There is a need for comprehensive and effective governance frameworks for marine biodiversity in the high seas (Marsac et al., 2019). The limited frameworks to support these complex ecosystems is also challenged with the difficulty of managing human activities in the high seas, including monitoring, control and surveillance (De Santo, 2018).

The magnitude of threats posed to seamounts, and other ecosystems characteristic of areas beyond national jurisdiction, have made their sustainable management a major international policy priority. At the time of writing the United Nations was negotiating an international legally binding instrument under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (General Assembly resolution 72/249, the ’Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction or BBNJ process).

One option to assist decision-makers in managing the conflicts that arise between the management of human activities and the conservation in the high seas is recognizing and quantifying the economic value of biodiversity (TEEB, 2010). Economic valuations can be used to assess ecosystem services and the value of their benefits to humans (Tinch et al., 2019), which are critical inputs to conduct a cost-benefit analysis in support conservation or restoration interventions (O’Connor et al., 2020a). [. . .]

However, in comparison to terrestrial and coastal habitats, there are comparatively few studies which undertake a socio-economic valuation of marine ecosystems, especially in relation seamounts (Jobstvogt et al., 2014). This poses serious challenges for decision-makers responsible for identifying seamount management options, specifically for policies that are centered on maximizing human welfare, or specifically, use values stemming from ecosystem services (Potts et al., 2014).

[. . . ] To date, there is one known valuation study in the Galapagos focusing on ecosystem services provided by mangroves and our research adds further evidence to the policy and conservation-oriented valuations in the management of the Galapagos archipelago (Tanner et al., 2019).

Specifically, our research:
(1) Adds to the evidence base on the relative importance of non-use values for Marine Protected Areas.
(2) Explores the potential influence of tourists’ willingness to pay for seamount conservation in the Galapagos Marine Reserve
(3) Identifies knowledge gaps and recommendations for future research into management measures applicable to seamounts in the Galapagos which we can build on in future research.

Our study is now possible as a result of new information on the ecology of deep seamount communities collected through deep-sea surveys in 2015 and 2016 (Salinas-de-León et al., 2020) and its findings help inform the practical policies that will be essential to ensure sustainable management of ecosystems in the deep and open ocean, e.g., via any new UN ‘BBNJ’ treaty. The recent findings of new species can be understood given the isolated and volcanic nature of the Galapagos archipelago, standing approximately 1000 km into the Pacific ocean, representing an oasis of life in the vastness of the ETP abyssal (ocean zone > 3000 m deep) plain.

Beneath the surface, hundreds of seamounts provide ecosystem services of biodiversity provisioning, due to a confluence of warm and cold oceanic currents, which gives rise to a unique mixture of marine biodiversity (Banks, 2002). Seamounts are recognized to enhance productivity, providing fisheries provisioning services to the local fishing fleet and recreational ecosystems services to the thriving tourism sector at the heart of the archipelago’s economy (Engie and Quiroga, 2014Marin Jarrin et al., 2018).

Willingness to Pay

Of the 117 respondents, 94% were willing to pay toward increased seamount conservation through an increase in visitor fee. [. . .] Enhancing seamount biodiversity conservation for the benefit of future generations was the most frequently expressed motive for wanting to pay for increased entrance fees followed by existence values and use-values.

[. . .] Several key results emerge from this analysis. Firstly, the results show that respondents prefer a management scenario which places equal emphasis on all three management plan aspects: promoting tourism, securing livelihoods and promoting science. Respondents are willing to pay $22 less for a program which focuses on science only and $24 less for a program focusing on tourism.

Secondly, in terms of urgency of conservation, there is a significant difference in willingness to pay between respondents who are “unsure” compared to those who believe conservation is urgent at some level. There is no significant difference in willingness to pay between those who think it is moderately urgent or very urgent.

A third finding is a difference in willingness to pay when we considered self-assessed awareness and actual knowledge of seamounts (as assessed by the interviewer). Respondents who had higher knowledge of seamounts, as judged by the interviewer, were prepared to pay significantly more toward their conservation than those who were not familiar with seamounts ($32.35, Model 4). In contrast, respondents who stated they were familiar with the information presented to them during the survey were willing to pay less than those who stated they were not familiar ($-30.81, Model 4). [. . .] We find that foreign tourists are willing to pay $49 more than Ecuadorian tourists.

Discussion and Conclusion

This study aimed to explore tourist perceptions and attitudes toward conservation of seamounts at the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR). The survey aimed to understand tourist’s preferences and willingness to pay values which would inform local policymaking and conservation agendas. [. . .] Our study tested respondent’s prior awareness of seamounts, provided them with information on seamounts and asked them to assess their own familiarity with this information before eliciting their willingness to pay for entrance fees for the GMR. We also assessed their motivations for contributing to conservation efforts and their preferences for the allocation of conservation funds to deep-sea species.

Our results show respondents were willing to pay an increase in their entrance fee to the benefit of seamount conservation, ranging from US$40 to US$57 [. . .] From a marine management perspective, we find that an integrative management plan was viewed as most favorable with 53% of respondents favoring this approach and respondents were willing to pay $25 more to fund a program with this focus, compared to either a tourism or research science-focused plan.

From this perspective, tourists recognize the need to balance multiple activities including fishing, tourism and conservation, to achieve sustainability. Our results place equal emphasis on all three management plans. The new management plan and zoning of the Galapagos Marine Reserve from 2016 support zones for the sustainable use of the marine resources (“sustainable use”) maintain other zones with non-extraction activities (“conservation use”) and other pristine zones of exclusive research use (“intangible”), although this plan is yet to be implemented.

[. . .] We encourage caution in the broader implementation of our results to policymaking in the Galapagos and instead see this study as a pilot in which a more in-depth study of local and tourist values for the GNP could be captured. The main stakeholders for the GMR are the tourism and local fishing sectors (all fishing in the GMR is restricted only to Galápagos residents and locally registered vessels), the conservation and science sector (both local and international), the Ecuadorian Navy and the Galápagos National Park Service (GNPS), who have the official responsibilities for managing the reserve.

[. . .] Table 8 reveals the public’s interest in protecting seamount ecosystems – even though they do not see or “directly” experience seamount biodiversity as they do with coral reefs, marine mammals and turtles. This conclusion is strengthened when we consider respondent’s response rates concerning their preferences for the allocation of conservation funds to seamount species. Moreover, our results show that tourists were equally divided when it came to charismatic versus uncharismatic species protection – therefore challenging the commonly held view that charismatic species have a stronger influence on human preferences for biodiversity conservation than less charismatic species (Ressurreição et al., 2011). However, small differences in the valuations of marine mammals compared to invertebrates were also found by Ressurreição et al. (2011).

[ . . .] The findings of our study provide a basis for understanding trade-offs between benefits from conservation and commercial uses of seamount biodiversity. The high non-use value that we identified justifies the need to ensure that cultural services are consistent with provisioning services in the rezoning of the archipelago’s marine reserve.

This is explicitly being discussed in a current re-zoning plan that addresses areas within the GMR as exclusive conservation zones or rather zones for sustainable use. Possible income through increased entrance fees stemming from non-use values for diverse ecosystems supports the case for enhancing conservation. Furthermore, as the major economic sector in the Galapagos, tourism has a vested interested in the conservation of ecosystems, since their economic incentives are aligned with conservation.

The rise of a locally owned ecotourism sector is a positive development both for the local economy and ecosystem conservation and we argue that seamount biodiversity conservation can be managed as part of the wider objective of promoting sustainable tourism. The symbiotic relationship that exists between tourism and conservation in the Galapagos, places a high economic value on the existence of seamount biodiversity (Mathis and Rose, 2016) and we should protect these systems for the sake of conserving biological diversity in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, as well as for their economic importance.

[. . . ] Upon entry into the Galapagos National Park, we suggest that tourists are presented with a pamphlet that outlines current research projects and specifies how funds from entrance fees are distributed amongst conservation priorities. Not only will this help to justify the fee payment, but it will also serve to educate tourists on important areas of conservation before their trip starts.

Moreover, it will also avoid a possible “crowding out effect” on donations to the local NGOs which they depend upon since entrance fees do not fund the research they conduct. This is important because increasing tourists’ knowledge of the host-area will help to increase their support for nature conservation, and also highlight key areas not covered by their entrance fees.


Overall, our findings suggest that tourists would support the development of a multiuse management plan for the Galapagos Marine Reserve. This plan balances conservation, local communities and sustainable tourism. Visitors to the Galapagos Islands attach positive and significant values to the conservation of seamount biodiversity. From a policy perceptive, our results show that the non-use values people associated with species protection need to be incorporated alongside the direct-use values for better management of marine protected areas. Additionally, the results show that overlooking the non-use values provided will lead to undervaluation of marine ecosystems and their services.

As the new multiuse zoning plan for the Galapagos Marine Reserve is soon to be implemented, it is very timely to consider user preferences that combine conservation, sustainable fishing and sustainable tourism into the management plan.

Tourism is also the main driver of the Galápagos economy, accounting for 78% of all employment, compared to less than 5% in fishing. The tourism sector is a main stakeholder to the Galapagos islands, but successful management plan should take into account other relevant stakeholders such as the local communities. The Galápagos Special Law (1998) established the GMR’s overarching objective – the protection of the archipelago’s marine biodiversity, both in terms of its intrinsic (preservation) and utilitarian (fisheries and tourism) values (Galápagos National Park Service [GNPS], 1998). The Management Plan states that the main aim of the GMR is to “protect and conserve the coastal-marine ecosystems of the archipelago and their biological diversity for the benefit of humanity, the local population, science and education.” (Galápagos National Park Service [GNPS], 1998).

As this study was focused on tourism preferences, we, therefore, recommend performing additional studies to local communities such as fisheries to include their view into policy recommendations. One of the main purposes of the tourist visiting Galapagos is nature-tourism. Lack of awareness on the importance to support local communities is probably one of the main reasons that tourist did not include livelihoods in the management plan [. . .]

Although willingness to pay studies are normally hypothetical in nature, i.e., depend on people’s opinions (Carson et al., 2001) they can be useful for management and have been extensively used globally. Therefore, our study can be used to inform policymakers of one avenue toward sustainably managing seamounts while being mindful of the need to consider livelihoods, conservation and tourisms into the equation. Knowing what we know about environmental funds of GMR, tourism funds dedicated to the conservation of seamounts would seem an important and practical step to ensure the protection of the diverse pelagic ecosystems, offshore seamounts, and ocean trenches globally.

Read the entire study at:–Bq5X8SqrVU497Nn3ftMLuhjPvuWdr6gAZ8qI20

Read more about recent seamount research in the Galapagos Islands:

Check out our interactive timeline and review new updates, videos, research findings and updates from the Galapagos Islands in 2020

Want to learn more about the foreign distant-water fishing fleet near the outskirts of Ecuador’s Insular EEZ, which surround the Galápagos Marine Reserve?

Informing and sharing news on marine life, flora, fauna and conservation in the Galápagos Islands since 2017
© SOS Galápagos, 2021

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