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Sea Sheperd Takes on the Galapagos

While Sea Shepherd’s chief cheerleader and trouble-inspirer Paul Watson is holding forth from his ship, The Farley Mowat, continuing its chase of Japanese whale hunters off Antarctica and (recently) being arrested on a thirty-year-old warrant in Portugal (where he had gone to attend a meeting of the International Whaling Commission) … the Washington state-based environmental group’s second-most visible campaign is ongoing, in the Galapagos.

From a very prominent, second-story office just across from the main fishing dock on Santa Cruz Alex Cornellisen manages the Shepherd’s Galapagos operation. At the moment, it is a two-person band. His focus is on trying to keep a global audience alerted to issues of over fishing and illegal fishing. To that end the group has already donated a boat to the park rangers, to help them enforce the marine reserves rules and regulations. A veteran of Sheperd’s Antarctica campaigns, Cornellisen is happy to be in the slightly less-amped environment of Galapagos. That said, his predecessor was chased out of the country when the shark fin “mafia” put a hit out on him.

“In Ecuador you can get someone killed for $40,” says Cornellisen, standing on the balcony of his office, looking down at the main dock where small fishing boats are unloading legal catches. “So you have to take threats seriously here.” His primary concern about the Galapagos is that while there are plenty of rules against illegal fishing, enforcement is difficult.

“Last year we were responsible for several raids which resulted in the confiscation of about ninety thousand sea cucumbers, and about thirty thousand shark fins. But there is an enormous amount of illegal fishing that still continues. For example, the legal quota for sea cucumbers last year was about two million allowed to be taken out of the park. Only about 1.2 million were reported, yet there was an increase in illegally caught and confiscated sea cucumbers. What was not being reported just ended up being sold in the illegal markets.

“It’s not just a few Galapaganians doing the illegal fishing. There’s a big group from the north, from Costa Rica, that comes here to take shark fins. They catch them within the park’s marine reserve and then take them out of the supposedly protected waters where they are sold mostly to Asian countries, like Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

“All this shark finning has an impact on tourism, not just the fish population. If there are fewer sharks to observe, there will one day be fewer tourists coming to see them. Without sharks the whole ecosystem will crumble and then the question is will tourists continue to come to the Galapagos?

“Enforcement in the Galapagos is not as efficient as Sea Shehperd would like to see. Plus, there’s a lot of corruption in the local Navy. Sometimes the Navy will alert illegal fishermen that the park officials are in the area. I’ve been coming to the Galapagos ever since I first joined Sea Shepherd in 2002 and every time I come, for a month or so, we catch poachers. So it is possible. They are absolutely out there and we know how to find them and pass the information on to the park. But the Navy often warns off the poachers so that by the time the park rangers arrive … they are gone.

“Unfortunately we don’t have any jurisdiction to apprehend the poachers, so all we can do is notify the park and start pulling in the long lines, which is mostly what they use to fish for sharks.

“I think it would certainly help if the park rangers were armed. If you go to a supermarket in Quito you see a security guard with a gun protecting bags of potatoes. Here we have this beautiful pristine ecosystem called the Galapagos Islands, and the park rangers have absolutely no jurisdiction whatsoever, they are not even allowed to carry batons. I think that the park rangers should definitely be armed. I think if the word got out to the illegal fishermen that the park rangers were armed and capable of making arrests, I think it would be a lot harder for poachers to come in here and take sharks or any other species.”

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