Industrial Fishing in the Galapagos Marine Reserve

A Conversation with Jack Grove

From the Environmental Review Newsletter
Volume Three Number Two: February 1996


 Charles Darwin wrote about the Galapagos Islands, "Most of the organisms are aboriginal creations, found nowhere else; there is even a difference between the inhabitants of the different islands; yet all show a marked relationship with those of America, though separated from that continent by an open space of ocean, between 500 and 600 miles in width. The archipelago is a little world within intself, or rather a  satellite attached to America, whence it has derived a few stray colonists." "Hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact - that mystery of mysteries - the first appearance of new beings on this earth."

     The Galapagos Islands were established as a national park by Ecuador in 1959, they were declared a World Heritage Site in 1971, and a Man and the Biosphere Reserve in 1982. In 1986, the ocean near the archipelago was established as a marine reserve covering the interior sea and out to twenty-three kilometers. Since 1990 the inland waters of the archipelago have been declared an international whale sanctuary, and all species of sea turtles are protected in Ecuadorian waters. Conservation efforts have resulted in a thriving eco-tourism industry in the islands.

     In August 1992, the government of Ecuador signed into law a marine management plan which allows for local, traditional, and artisanal level commercial fishing in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, but curtails industrial fishing.  Despite the reserve designation, illegal, industrial-scale fishing in the Galapagos has occurred. Clandestine shark fisheries were discovered in 1988 and again in 1991, where tens of thousands of sharks were killed for the Asian fin market. Protests by island residents prompted legislation prohibiting all shark fishing within most of the Reserve. However, pressure continues to legalize major commercial fisheries in the Marine Reserve.

     Prior to 1994 an extensive illicit fishery developed in the islands for the export of sea cucumbers to Asia. In June of 1994, local fishermen picketed the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, threatened to kill the giant land tortoises in their captive breeding program if the government did not lift the ban on fishing.

     On June 23, 1994, the government lifted the ban and established a four month fishing season. They placed a limit of 550,00 sea cucumbers to be taken in four months. After complaints of abuses and illegal activities, the government closed the fishery a month early, in December 1994. In three months over 7 million sea cucumbers were taken from the Marine Reserve.

     In January 1995, local fishermen took over the Darwin Research Station as well as the headquarters of the National Park Service on Santa Cruz Island. They took the employees, including women and children, hostage and threatened violence if the fisheries were not reopened. One naturalist had his arm broken by several local fishermen as he was about to turn in a report of illegal fishing to the office of the port captain. Troops were sent from the mainland to restore order in late January 1995.

     On September 1, 1995, the President of Ecuador vetoed a law passed by Congress that would have given management authority in the Galapagos to local authorities. From September 3 to 15 two Ecuadorian congressmen and a small group of island residents again took hostages at the Charles Darwin Research Station and National Park. They threatened that areas in the park would be burned and tourists taken hostage unless the government met their demands. A group of Santa Cruz residents formed an opposing group, the Committee for Peace and Well Being, to repudiate hostage taking and threats of violence.

          In 1994 Charles Darwin Research Foundation requested an independent scientific study to assess the sea cucumber status in the Galapagos. The study concluded that sea cucumbers have already been wiped out in a number of locations and that the ban on sea cucumber fishing in the reserve should be maintained. Because of this and problems with illegal fishing, the head of the U.N. development program for Ecuador suggested that World Heritage Site status for the islands be denied: a message to Ecuador to better protect its resources. Even with sea cucumber fishing being illegal in the last half of 1995, over half a million sea cucumbers were exported each month through the Ecuadorian mainland to Asian markets.

     The illegal sea cucumber fishery was in operation for over a year before the season was established and has caused depletion of the animals at sea and environmental problems on shore. Semi-permanent shore camps have been established, mangrove forests are being cut for firewood and to establish hiding places; rats and other non-native species are being introduced to islands that have had the most strict protection of any in the world. Over eighty tortoises were killed on Isabella Island in 1994 alone. Most were killed near fishing camps.

     The Ecuadorian government continues to work to improve the situation in the Galapagos. The president vetoed the special interest law allowing local control of extractive industries and has convened commissions to draft new laws directed at slowing the population flow between the mainland and the islands. The number of people living on the islands has increased from about 5,000 in the 1980s to about 15,000 now. The vice minister of agriculture has been helpful in advancing a project to stem the tide of introduction of foreign species to the islands. That project will last five years and cost 6 million dollars. The Interamerican Development Bank has committed $600,000 to start improving infrastructure on the islands (sewage disposal, solid waste disposal, water systems) and also improved management of the marine reserve. The park has aquired a high speed patrol boat and is increasing its patrolling and enforcement activities.

     Jack Grove has worked and led tours in the Galapagos Islands for twenty years. He has a bachelor´s degree in marine biology and is a doctoral candidate at Pacific Western University in Los Angeles. Jack has also authored with Robert J. Lavenburg, The Fishes of the Galapagos Islands, to be published in 1996 by Stanford University Press. We spoke with him about the current situation in the Galapagos.

ER: Jack, how does this new shark fin and sea cucumber fishery affect the rest of the Islands?

JG: Although trafficking in sea cucumbers developed into a full scale industry only in the past two years, killing sharks for the blackmarket trading in shark fins has been documented in Galapagos as early as 1979. In my opinion the shark fin fishery and the sea cucumber fishery in the Galapagos are the worst environmental catastrophe to hit the Galapagos since the whalers and the buccaneers brought in rats, cats, and dogs and took out tens of thousands of giant tortoises.

     Two different presidents of Ecuador have denounced shark fishing and indicated it was prohibited. On June 23, 1994 however, a decision made by a handful of Ecuadorian authorities overturned the presidential decrees. The document they signed, the Acta of June 23, was to legalize a shark fishery slated to open January 15, 1995 as well as a sea cucumber fishery, and a lobster fishery both of which opened in the later months of 1994.

     I was working in the islands in 1988 when the Japanese became active in the shark fin traffic.  At that time, the president of Ecuador said that he was prohibiting shark fisheries in the Galapagos. That was certainly a commendable gesture. Now however, a group of six government representatives including the head of the ministry of fisheries overturned two presidential decrees designed to preserve this World Heritage Site.

     Prior to June 1994 we all believed that the Galapagos were protected by te highest level of conservation legislation. The largest pristine island in the world is Fernandina; its ecological integrity is now jeopardized by a few fishermen who have figured out how to rape the island and sell the resources at a high profit. There is a risk of the introduction of feral mammals that would devastate the nesting colonies of rare flightless cormorants,  of the marine iguanas and of penguins inhabiting the island. The degradation of the marine habitat surrounding Fernandina Island was until the last eighteen months the least impacted of the Galapagos marine environments. That is unfortunately changing.

ER: The Ecuadorians have done a fairly good job at protecting the terrestrial environment in the islands.

JG: That is absolutely right. Ecuadorians should feel a sense of pride about bringing the Galapagos into the twentieth century intact; they have done a great job.

     One of the main problems with the existing conservation policy is that the terrestrial environs are protected as though they can be separated from the marine ecosystems. In an oceanic archipelago, terrestrial and marine ecosystems are interdependent; to protect one you must safeguard the other. The ocean provides all of the food for seabirds, marine iguanas, sea lions, fur seals and others. If fish populations are over-exploited, there will be an impact on the terrestrial ecosystem.

ER: What is the economic potential of the shark fin and sea cucumber fishery?

JG: On the mainland, forty percent of the Ecuadorian population is living at or below poverty level. The Galapagos Archipelago has the highest standard of living in Ecuador and the recent economic thrust - and it is a gold rush - has added a new ecological, environmental pressure to the Galapagos ecosystem. When the government opened a sea cucumber fishery, more people migrated to the islands to take advantage of that resource. It is noteworthy that fishery resources on the coast are already depleted. I believe the money that has been generated by the sea cucumber fishery and the shark fin fishery, both of which are exclusively for export to Southeast Asia - secondarily Japan and primarily Hong Kong - the money involved is so great that it is out of control. The Galapagos is the last stand in the tropical Pacific. They have virtually eliminated sea cucumbers in Indonesia, the Philippines, the Society Islands, the coast of Ecuador and northern Peru. And Galapagos is the last place.

ER: What can - or should - the government do to protect the resources in the Islands?

JG: In the Galapagos on land, eighty-eight percent of the archipelago is national park.  The remaining areas are colonizing zones and military bases.  So on land it is very well defined who has control of what. But on the ocean the navy is the only government presence. The navy has the military power ordained by the government except for the harbors at Baltra, San Cristobel, Academy Bay and on southeast Isabella where there are communities, and there is a port captain for those four harbors. The two institutions that have authority in the Galapagos are the military and the port captains. Neither of those organizations have anything to do with the National Park which is the organization that knows all about this appropriately documented and scientifically backed proposal for the management of the Galapagos Marine Resources Reserve. And that plan should be initiated and backed up with patrol boats. The National Park needs to have that authority and the Darwin Foundation and Research Station should be serving as a consultant, just as they do in the terrestrial environment. The Darwin Foundation continues to play an important role in this crisis, however the international conservation community needs to recognize that although the Darwin station is dedicated to preserving the marine environment, they are the only international institution that is based in the islands, and they have to be careful about what they say.

     This fishery is a multimillion dollar industry. It developed in the last two years and the money involved is mind boggling.  We are looking at fishermen walking around in Santa Cruz who have gold chains around their necks big enough to hang an anchor on. Thigs have changed on the islands very quickly in the last two years. This industry has not only devastated the marine environment, it has had a dramatic impact on the society of the archipelago. It is essential that the government designate the archipelago a special province in order to allow them to prohibit immigration.

ER: What has been the population change in the islands in the last two years?

JG:  When I started on Santa Cruz in 1975, there were 7,500 people there; there are now between twelve and thirteen thousand. The number of fishermen in the last two years increased from about 160 families to about 360 families. In two years! We are looking at two problems here: one is the socio-economics of a province of Ecuador, the other is the devastation of a World Heritage Site and from a marine biological perspective, the last stand of large populations of hammerhead sharks in the eastern Pacific.

ER: Are hammerhead fins especially tasty?

JG:  It is not that they are especially good for the shark fin industry, it is just that they happen to be in the Galapagos in large numbers. And the worse the border situation with Peru gets, the more likely the bandits who are out there raping the Galapagos marine environment are going to continue to expand their industry because there is so much money involved. And they don´t need to run it through the mainland.  My opinion is that no matter what the government says about what is approved and what is disapproved and what the government is doing and what they are not doing, none of that matters until there are some people put in jail and fines are being levied and there are patrol boats on station to insure that the reckless exploitation does not continue.

ER: Wby did the government okay a shark fin fishery in the Marine Reserve in the first place?

JG: I could not believe it! Here it is, a World Heritage Site and the government is saying okay let´s do an experimental shark fishery. Hell! We don´t even know which species of shark are out there! I happen to know, but nobody else does.

     It is a damn shame that there is a World Heritage Site that is now being destroyed in order for a few individuals to make a profit. And when they are done making a profit the rest of the Ecuadorian community is going to have to suffer for it. Not to mention the international community.

ER: What do you know about the hostage situation on Santa Cruz?

JG: From January 3 to 6, 1995 they were under siege by more than a hundred fishermen with machetes and masks on their heads. Women and children were also held hostages in the two facilities, with limited access. In other words they were able to get in and out. They did sink the Darwin Station ponga and they cut off traffic to the airport. [A ponga is a skiff. ed.] Assistance from the mainland was requested but somehow a message came from one of the authorities in the Galapagos to the effect, don´t worry, we do not need help. Everything is under control. So help was not sent for three days.

Copyright 1996 Environmental Review