In a tally by the U.N. World Heritage committee meeting in Brasilia last week the Galapagos Islands were taken off the list of World Heritage sites formally considered “in danger.”
Tourists march on in the Galapagos. Photo by Fiona Stewart
The 19-island chain off the coast of Ecuador was added to the list in 2007, thanks to rapid increases in overfishing, most egregiously sea cucumber poaching and shark finning. While the islands are well protected from the heavy impact of tourist’s feet – 97 percent of the islands are off limits to the tourist industry, which has boomed in recent years – the seas that surround them had been less well protected.
The problem stemmed from horrific poverty on the mainland; tens of thousands of impoverished Ecuadoreans dreamed of moving to the islands to cash in on the tourism boom. About 30,000 did. When they arrived and found no pot of gold at the end of the tourist rainbow, many turned to illegal fishing.
After the president of Ecuador announced the island state at “great risk,” the Galapagos were added to the endangered list. After just two years, a vote of 14-5 took it off. Brazil, at the request of Ecuador, had asked that the Galapagos be taken off the list. Apparently the bad publicity of being ranked “endangered” (thus mismanaged) outweighed the need to use the listing to keep world attention focused on the problems.
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.”
Like so many parts of our still-protected world, in Galapagos it is sometimes easy to get swamped by what’s gone wrong with the place and overlook its uniqueness. Our new film, “What Would Darwin Think,” attempts to show both. Obviously the close to 200,000 tourists who arrive each year are coming for good reason – Galapagos offers the most spectacular glimpse of biodiversity on the planet. Albatross, boobies, finches and mockingbirds; iguanas, tortoises and penguins; sharks, dolphins and hundreds of species of fish. And more. Everywhere – everywhere — you look.
While I’ve been focused these past couple weeks on some of the ills besetting this truly special place – too many tourists, too many locals, shark finning, sea cucumber poaching, etc. — I’ve just put up some reminders of why Galapagos is such a draw. Photo galleries from Santa Cruz are up now: A peek at the natural world archives at the Charles Darwin Center; a look at local’s life and tourist life; the fish market and some of the incredible beauty. During the week we’ll add more photos from Santa Cruz, of Sea Shepherd’s operation and a recent protest by tourist operators plus beauty shots from seven more islands – Bartolome, Espanola, Fernandina, Isabella, North Seymour, Plaza and Santiago. If you can think of a place with more creatures per square meter … let me know.
The equation is straightforward: Too many people attempting to live permanently in the Galapagos + too few jobs to go around = a percentage are resorting to illegal economies to survive. Shark finning is one of those illegalities, and still growing. Financed by mafias based in mainland Ecuador, fins are taken – hacked off, the useless carcasses tossed overboard – and sent abroad for shark fin soup. Japanese are the biggest culprits though there are restaurants as far away as Norway and Germany, which sell the soup as well. The sad reality is that not only is it a complete waste of the shark but the fins have absolutely no taste, no nutritional value. It’s all about the show. If you can afford shark fin soup – at a business meeting, wedding, anniversary – it means you’ve got the bucks to spend on a frivolity.
You’ve seen the television ads recently promoting various shark weeks? Fear continues to sell mediocre TV, thus the boom of such shows. Another statistic: How many people are killed by sharks each year worldwide? On average, four or five. How many sharks does man kill each year, some for food, others for showy displays of money? More than seventy million. It’s the sharks that should be swimming away from us as fast as they can.
Over fishing around the globe is a huge problem. The over fishing of sharks, especially the big ones, known as “apex predators” (including the great white and reef sharks) is particularly damaging to the marine cycle since sharks maintain the populations of smaller fish that in turn feed on smaller fish that people consume commercially. Minus the predators, these sub-predators run rampant and decimate smaller fish stocks. While we may think there are unlimited numbers of fish in the sea, the more we rapaciously take the fewer species will live on into the coming decades. One more statistic? The World Wildlife Fund expects all of the fish that we know today to be gone by 2050. That’s what we should be scared of, not the very slim potential of becoming lunch while enjoying a sunny holiday at the beach. (To find a detailed chart and database of the world’s endangered sharks, visit the Shark Foundation.)
Recent attempts to bolster international fishing laws may be getting an extra push in the U.S. pending the passage of legislation now being considered in the Senate (and recently passed in the House). The legislation is designed to close most of the loopholes in the current ban on shark finning in American waters. Hopefully other nations will follow suit. (International Fisheries Law and Policy Portal.)
In the Galapagos we spent time with Godfrey Merlen, who represents San Francisco-based Wild Aid there. A twenty-year resident, he leads the group’s local efforts against illegal wildlife trafficking. Small groups of paid informants keep him alert to who in the relatively small community are shark finning (as well as poaching sea cucumbers and other at-risk species). Unfortunately once the fins are back in mainland Ecuador, even when seized by officials they often end up back in the illegal markets. Corruption is a boom business in Ecuador too.
“Over fishing of a number species is a reality in the Galapagos and in some ways – for some species, like lobsters – it’s a little bit late to talk about. We also know that thousands and thousands of sea cucumbers are recovered from illegal fisheries every year, which has had a depressing effect on the remaining population and makes management of it near impossible.
“Still, even though we know it’s going on, illegal sea cucumber gathering is an active component of the fisheries here and brings in considerable money. Just recently, at the end February, there was a capture of thirty sacks of cucumbers on the mainland, about 3,000 pounds, with an estimated value of about $200,000. This is a lot of money and a lot of sea cucumbers. Most of them came from right here in the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Local fishermen say, What are we supposed to do, what are we supposed to fish? Lobster and grouper are nearly gone. So they get into the illegal market very, very simply and easily. Though the national park has patrol boats and keeps up vigilance the area is enormous and enforcement is difficult.As a result it’s been extremely easy to export illegal produce from the Galapagos.
“It’s exactly the same with the shark fin. Sharking finning, the removal of the fins and leaving the bodies to rot either in the ocean or on the shoreline, has become very common in Galapagos. Again, the fishermen say, “I have a lot of debt, I need to buy a new motor for my boat, and I don’t have any money.” Then someone comes along and says, Well, okay, I’ll lend you money but what I want is sea cucumbers, shark fins, sea lion penises, seahorses, whatever is the going mode especially in the far eastern countries where money is not a problem. Huge sums of money can be poured into a place like the Galapagos to fuel an illegal fishery. In the long run of course things can only go from bad to worse for the fishery.
“As resources decline whether through legal or illegal fisheries the resource is the basis of the fisherman’s economy. As those resources decline, incomes decline too and the cost of living keeps going up. Sooner or later the price of fuel will jump back up; currently it’s a very false $1 a gallon for diesel. What the fishermen fail to understand is that ultimately all these illegal activities combined with the lack of a sufficiently strong fisheries management, at a certain point the fishing sector of the economy will collapse.
“At the moment the fisherman finds himself in a really hot spot, partially through his own failure to appreciate the risks he’s running. He may make money today but tomorrow he will not make money. He’s already discovered that with the sea cucumber. Basically the fishermen have very little money because the resource is disappearing.”