Sea cucumber fishing in the Galapagos Marine Reserve: past, present and future?

6 July 2021
Opinion article: Pablo Guerrero, Director of Marine Conservation of WWF-Ecuador

Sea cucumbers are sedentary animals, belonging to the group of echinoderms, the same family as sea urchins and starfish. They inhabit rocky and sandy bottoms, although it is common to find them tucked into small caves near cliffs. They are a filter species which is important for the ecosystem. They look like small marine “vacuum cleaners” cleaning the waters of particles and debris.

In continental Ecuador, fishing for the so-called “brown cucumber” (Isostichopus fuscus) – the only sea cucumber species present in Ecuadorian waters that has commercial value – began back in 1986; this fishery was motivated by Asian traders due to the high demand that exists for this resource in the far east. Without any type of control on the Ecuadorian continental coast, fishing for this species caused the resource to collapse in 1991.

It was at that time that Asian traders turned their gaze westward towards the Galapagos, where there were healthy, untouched populations of this species. Commercial brown cucumber fishing began in the Galapagos that same year, when fisheries management on the islands was in its nascent stages and the regulatory framework was very fragile. Practically without any type of restriction, Asian merchants settled on the islands and promoted fishing by teaching locals how to capture and process the product. 

Compared to other techniques that were considered traditional and that were already carried out on the islands (such as spiny lobster and cod), this fishing activity was easy and profitable. Moreover, due to the non-existence of a regulatory and control framework, many local people who were not fishermen joined the industry overnight, causing the fishing sector to grow exponentially. It was the sea cucumber fishery that caused this distortion in the local fishing sector, which more broadly affected fishing management in the islands, especially in comparison to other fisheries that were considered traditional and that already existed on the islands (such as those of spiny lobster and cod). 

In 1992, the Ecuadorian Government tried to prohibit this activity, but the illegal fishing of brown cucumber continued without relenting. In 1993, the Galapagos National Park, in coordination with the Charles Darwin Foundation and local fishermen, began to carry out the first monitoring of the resource, which served to lay the foundations for future zonal management. 

In 1998, the Special Law which created the Galapagos Marine Reserve was issued, and in 1999, the Management Plan for the protected area was adopted. As of that year, the Galapagos National Park put into operation the new management system of the Marine Reserve; the management system consists of a Board of local users called the Participatory Management Board, and a Council of ministers called the Inter-institutional Management Authority of the Marine Reserve. Through this co-management system, all discussions and decisions on fisheries management were then channeled, including those on sea cucumber. Since then, a story began to develop that had its ups and downs, and was not exempt from violent events that tarnished the image of the islands. 

The Galapagos participatory management system became a worldwide benchmark, but stopped working in 2015 when the Special Law of Galapagos was revised. Since then, without a Board or Interinstitutional Management Authority, all decisions related to fishing began to be made directly between the Park and the local fishing sector. 

In 2015, the so-called “Five-Year Fishing Calendar 2016 – 2021” was adopted. This calendar, which was designed with the support of international cooperation, imposed a 5-year ban on sea cucumber fishing with the purpose of allowing the species’ population to recover and to allow it to reach a number equal to or greater than 11 individuals per 100 square meters in the different areas. Eleven individuals is the minimum number necessary to create the conditions conducive to a successful reproduction process of the species, since the individuals are required to be close enough so that the male and female gametes can be found in the water column.

After the five-year ban, the Ministry of the Environment and Ecological Transition announced on June 9 the opening of a season for the controlled fishing of sea cucumber in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, after “studies that warn of a surplus in its population.” The basis of the decision was a document entitled “Executive Summary of the Population Monitoring of the Sea Cucumber (Isostichopus fuscus), in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, 2021 Season,” prepared by the Directorate of Ecosystems – Process of Conservation and Use of Marine Ecosystems, which is dated May 31, 2021.

In its “Conclusions” section, this report indicates that the cucumber entered a recovery phase by registering a median of 12 individuals per 100 square meters in the west of Isabela, and that the modeled projection of its population continues to show a slow recovery until the year 2030, in a scenario of no fishing. Continuing with the “Recommendations” section of the report, it indicates that it is necessary to extend the moratorium on the extraction of sea cucumber until the recovery of its population is “more accelerated”, and the size structure begins to reflect recovery with greater number of young individuals. It also points out that, given the circumstances, in the event of opening the fishery, the quota should be “minimal”, so that the resource does not enter a “critical” phase or over-exploitation in the long term.  

The COVID 19 pandemic, which began in March 2020, affected the entire world, and in the case of the Galapagos, it impacted tourism – the main economic activity in the islands – causing the annual flow of visitors to decrease by 73%. Added to this were the quarantine security measures adopted by the Government to protect the lives of citizens, which resulted in a collapse of the local economy, which also affected the artisanal fishing sector. Hence, it is completely understandable that the government began to consider offers and options for actions to be made in the beginning of 2021, in the sense of preparing economic reactivation plans for the islands; among other things, they contemplated soft credits and tax exemptions for their inhabitants.

However, it is important to understand these circumstances and history, because it aids in understanding that the 600,000 individual sea cucumber that will be allowed to be caught for 60 days as of July 12 are for purely social considerations and under the auspice of supporting the economic reactivation of artisanal fishermen on the islands. 

What has been heard so far from official media is that the fishery is opening “because the studies say so,” but the reality is that the sea cucumber population in the Galapagos has not recovered; the species continues to be exploited, and to meet the objective of the species’ recovery – namely, that the species has reached stable population that allows fishing – the closure should continue. That’s what scientists say in the same report from the Galapagos National Park.

The economic growth of the archipelago’s inhabitants is closely linked to the sustainable use of natural resources. The continuation of the ban could seem like a tough measure, but it is important to understand that sustainability implies the application of policies that do not put natural capital at risk in favor of short-term economic interests; this [sea cucumber season] will not solve the structural problem in the local economy that was aggravated by the pandemic. The need to evaluate and promote measures and solutions for the economic recovery of the islands should not detract from or compromise the ecological integrity of this invaluable natural heritage for present and future generations.

Good management of a marine protected area such as the Galapagos requires paying close attention to what science says. In this case, science tells us that overexploitation could exceed the [pressure on population] limits, putting cucumber populations at risk of making them non-viable; the species becomes non-viable if its population is reduced to the point that they become a few scattered individuals and are very far from each other.  

If the fishing activity is opened due to socioeconomic considerations, it is very important that the responsibility of opening it is conducted under strict controls in the authorized areas, and that the the sea cucumber seedbed [breeding grounds] of the Bolívar Channel is respected.

Furthermore, now that the five-year fishing calendar that was previously defined has come to an end, it would be worth knowing how the authorities plan to evaluate and update it. Responsible fisheries management demands, among other things: having a plan with clear objectives, revised stock indicators so that they can be monitored, as well as a data analysis method and clearly defined catch control rules. The adoption of a management framework such as the one described above is a key aspect of modern fisheries management, and it is the minimum that a site declared as Natural Heritage of Humanity would require.

Read the original coverage from WWF at https://www.wwf.org.ec/?367671/pepinodemarGLPS


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

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