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Over Fishing in the Galapagos

The Charles Darwin Research Center sits atop a long hill climbing up from Puerto Ayora, on the big island of Santa Cruz. Part of the Charles Darwin Foundation established in 1959 – the lone international research and advisory institution dedicated to exclusively studying the Galapagos – the CDRS is both an archive of historical scientific study and site of various laboratories engaged in today’s most cutting-edge research in the islands. Many of the world’s most-expert Galapganian scientists either have worked here or still do and we’ve walked up the hill to visit with one, marine biologist Alex Hearn … who we find with his hands in a tank, coddling one of the darlings of local marine life, the sea cucumber.

Sitting on a second-story deck overlooking the blue ocean that is his backyard we talk about the impacts of over fishing here. Some highlights:

“You know the Galapagos has a history of over-exploitation that goes way back to the whalers of the sixteenth century. Ever since we’ve had successive waves of boom-bust fisheries. The latest being the sea cucumber which started in the early Nineties as a result of the resource collapsing on the continent followed by a sizable migration of fishers who had already successively depleted the sea cucumber along the coast of Ecuador moving to the islands and hammering the resource here. At the time it was unregulated and there was no way of stopping it because there was no Marine Reserve. By the time the Marine Reserve was created a lot of the damage had already been done. Sometimes we forget that the Marine Reserve management system inherited a lobster resource which had already collapsed in the Eighties, and a sea cucumber resource that had already been heavily fished for ten years .…”

“In terms of coastal fishing, the number of local fishermen — who are the only ones legally allowed to fish here — has nearly tripled during the Nineties, from about 400 to over 1,000. Fishing around the coast has increased dramatically and we haven’t been very successful in managing it. In part because it’s a group with a lot of political power as well as the perception of an immediate need. Since 1998 this local management system has failed to take into account the sustainability of both lobster and sea cucumber. The result is that both are suffering, badly ….”

“When you’re at university or when you’re studying a particular species biologically you’re focused on the species. When you’re looking at the fisheries, the actual biology of the species is the least important thing really, your job becomes more about managing people. Getting them, first of all, to trust that our advice is first and foremost because we are scientists and is focused on sustainability. Our motivation is not about eliminating or prohibiting fishermen. There is a big lack of trust here, partly due to the fact that we’re both a science and conservation organization and carry a fair amount of political power as well. As a result we vote on the system as a conservation sector but we also provide the technical advice, which may sometimes seen as a little bit suspect. Some locals, fishermen, will say ‘You’re providing the advice just to justify your position.’ It can get very complex. It’s about building trust and showing them that the long-term impacts of over fishing and are very difficult to prove but that we still need to make changes now ….”

“Working in Galapagos is like a rollercoaster. There are times when it’s immensely frustrating and there are times when it’s just paradise. To tell the truth, for me, as a young scientist coming to Galapagos straight out of university, to be able to develop lines of research, to be able to publish, to be able to take the research from the sea to the government and follow that entire process is something you really don’t get in many other places. On a personal level I am eternally grateful for Galapagos. Besides, Galapagos also gave me a wife and a baby. So what can I say?”