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.”
Fernando Ortiz grew up on mainland Ecuador and has lived in the Galapagos the past twenty years. His career path has led him from tour guide to dive guide and eventually dive company manager. Along the route he decided that talking to tourists about conservation was not enough, so he made the leap to full-time environmentalist. Today he runs Conservation International’s office in Puerto Ayora. We talk on the town’s main dock, Zodiac’s whipping back and forth behind us overloaded with tourists, bags of cement, cases of water and beer, two-by-fours and cement blocks, frozen chickens and everything else needed to run a community of 40,000 on an island separated from the mainland by six hundred miles.
“I have realized a few things in the last few years regarding how best to preserve the Galapagos, primarily that it doesn’t matter how good your technical arguments or human arguments are, it’s not about that. It’s mostly, and unfortunately, all about economics and politics.
“I try not to be critical to tourism as an economy. In fact, if we analyze it in one way, tourism is probably the best way in which nature can pay in cash for its survival. If I were to go back to the islands as I saw them for the first time, nineteen years ago, I would probably find the same biologic, ecologic and evolutionary processes still happening, the same blue-footed boobies still nesting on the same trails. The same for the sea lions and penguins. Tourism has actually been well controlled, despite its growth. It’s the indirect impacts of tourism that we need to control.
“For that we need to be able to make some hard political decisions which then need to be followed out by everyone. Unfortunately when you have, let’s say a mayor who is looking for a re-election, he may not favor some regulations that sound restrictive for some of his potential voters. While some of our politicians are aware of the fact that natural resources are limited here in the Galapagos, that there is not enough water, not enough land, that we can’t produce much here locally, who understand the importance of conservation, most regard those as things that can be ‘negotiated.’ Nature cannot be negotiated.
“My children are growing up here and there couldn’t be any better place for a child to grow up. It’s fantastic, they are having experiences no other child – certainly no city kid – can have, which is very important. But do I think we’ll have to leave the Galapagos eventually, because it’s changing too fast. There are simply too many people. All of a sudden there are things here that didn’t used to be here, like violence and crime, a result of too many people.
“The frustration is that I think we know how to save and protect the Galapagos, but I don’t think we have the political will to follow through. In a way, I have become a Galapagos expert, working in different trades and that experience allows me to be analytical right now, to see things from different perspectives, and I still think it is possible there is room for optimism. Again, though it sounds cliché, I really do believe we can make a difference otherwise I wouldn’t be working in conservation, I would probably still be working in tourism, making more money while I can, having a great time scuba diving every day.
“But I know that things can be better managed, especially on land. The difficult part is that we are now surrounded by a one-hundred-and-thirty-eight-square-kilometer marine reserve, which is harder to manage. Thanks to illegal fishing and a boom in industrial fishing many of the beautiful fish that make the Galapagos special are at risk. On paper we are able to come up with strategies to protect them. But we have to have strategies that go beyond the limits of the Galapagos, beyond the marine reserve, all the way to the mainland and further.
“Ironically the Galapagos National Park and the Galapagos Marine Reserve are far advanced in terms of having the right tools and the right resources for managing the impacts of people. Many other protected areas in the world look up at us because we are breaking new ground here, things that are then replicated in other protected places. But we also have our failures, which unfortunately are also being replicated.
“Tourism, if well managed – and I emphasize, if well managed – has a chance to become the best opportunity for people to make a living here, without effecting the environment. But we have to keep our eyes on not just what happens to the visitor sites but the rest of the Galapagos. Let’s not be so short term. But if you look at the numbers, the growth in tourism is scary. We’ve had sustained growth for the past twenty years of twelve to fourteen percent a year and don’t see it slowing down.
“We have allowed market pressures to rule tourism in Galapagos. Many of my friends are tour operators and I ask them all the time what if something gets out of control here – species disappear, too much pollution — and tomorrow people start canceling their trips to Galapagos.What would happen then? They have no answers. Neither does the government on mainland Ecuador. Everybody knows we have a so-called golden goose here and that we need to take care of it. I hope as a society, and as institutions, that we can cope with this challenge. I believe there is an important group of well-intentioned people working in the right direction. All we can do is hope for the best.”
It would be wrong on its face to say that tourism is the biggest problem facing the Galapagos today. Simultaneously, it is accurate to say that the growth in tourism in the one-of-a-kind archipelago is the primary reason the islands are “in danger.” Those are not my words, but UNESCO’s, in 2007 … the same year Ecuador’s new president claimed the islands were at “great risk” and signed a decree making their protection a national priority. You get the sense that just defining the exact problem facing the Galapagos, for both locals and outsiders, is tricky.
With ninety seven percent of the islands off-limits and under national park protection – small, guided tours limited to 60 designated sites – the system that introduces tourists to the nineteen Galapagos islands has long been regarded a model of eco-tourism. But the success of that model is what puts them at such risk today: In 1991 there were 41,000 visitors, this year there will be close to 200,000; during that same period human population has risen from a few thousand to 40,000. Those are a lot of combined footsteps – as well as ship and plane traffic — for such a fragile eco-system (the so-called “Mona Lisa of biodiversity”).
The sudden arrival of so many people from so many parts of the world introduces parasites which threaten both flora and fauna; permanent residents arrive desirous of re-creating their mainland lifestyles, including cars, dogs and cats, and air conditioning; tour operators are pushing to expand their offerings to include sport fishing and skydiving.The Ecuadorian government has tried, with limited success, to limit migration and is considering raising the national park fee paid by every tourist from $100 to $135, an attempt to slow the numbers.
Jack Nelson is one of the Galapagos’ most-veteran tour operators, coming to the islands to live permanently in 1967. Like others like him, in different settings around the world who have watched their own personal paradises become overly popular, he is alarmed.“To a tourist, things look good. You still see a lot of animals, and not many other people,” he says. “But get outside those controlled (national park) parameters, and you’ll find a big mess nobody can figure out what to do about.”
While we were filming in and around the islands we met longtime Galapagos guide Sylvia Vargas on a few occasions. A native Ecuadorian, she’s been coming here for more than twenty years and has lived in Puerto Ayora off and on since first visiting as a teenager. She feels both blessed to be working in such an incredible place and worried that tourism and migration may be taking too big a toll.
“Personally, I think tourism should be capped for the moment. Higher entry fees haven’t worked to slow the growth. One tour operator I work for recently told me that the people who are coming to the Galapagos today are coming with a different idea about the place – they don’t ask as much anymore about wildlife, their first questions are about the comfort of the ship. They want more air-conditioning, more service, nicer cabins, a massage, a more comfortable mattress and expect a lot of chemicals on board to keep things clean and tidy … all of which have a direct impact on the Galapagos. More energy used, more garbage created, more pollution.
“I came first in 1984 when there were two thousand people living in town and two cars. I knew everyone on the street and was offered food by friends every day. The electricity on the island used to shut down at night. Now there are twenty times as many people and two hundred times as many cars. And we have electricity twenty-four hours a day. I miss the peacefulness of back then.
“But I have talked with people who work as guides in other places and they always say that we Galapagos guides are spoiled because we see such incredible wildlife every day. I guess they are right. But for me the most popular sites are too crowded, sometimes there are so many people I feel … embarrassed.
“My biggest worry is that more people living here means more demand for everything. I don’t see people thinking about having a different lifestyle than what they have on the mainland. They will tell you they came to the Galapagos to live in a peaceful place, but they expect to have exactly the same things that they had on the mainland. Why would you have a pet dog or cat here? Why would you have a car if you live in town? Why would you build a new house with air conditioning, when electricity is so hard to create? At Christmas on the mainland we decorate our houses with lots of outdoors lights and now they do the same thing here even though the power comes from a gas generator and the gas comes from far away.”
Walking the dusty streets of Ibo island it felt like I’d fallen back a century. If it wasn’t for the polyester t-shirts worn by most of the kids I imagine the place doesn’t look much different today than when the Portuguese were still here and the selling of slaves from its beaches was a not-so-distant memory. One thing that has survived intact is an unusual-if-beautiful music, a blend of throaty singing and traditional drumming. At moments it appeared as if the women singers were in a trance, or hypnotized, their movements simultaneously jerky and yet somehow elegant.