Threats to the Marine Reserve

In 2007, UNESCO cited illegal and unsustainable fishing practices as a primary reason for its decision to add the Galapagos Islands to its list of World Heritage in Danger. Encompassing about 80,000 square miles (an area roughly equivalent in size to Kansas), the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR) is vast and exceedingly difficult to effectively patrol. It is the second largest marine reserve in the world and the largest in a developing country. Because it lies at the confluence of the three major ocean currents, the reserve also happens to be remarkably abundant, making it an irresistible target for illegal fishermen and poachers from the Galapagos, mainland Ecuador, and beyond.

Longline fishing, a practice that is banned in the GMR, is perhaps the most serious threat. Longlining refers to the practice of fishing with monofilament lines that are attached to buoys and strung out over long distances – usually between one and 10 miles. Secondary lines are attached to the mainline at regular intervals. The secondary lines extend 15 to 50 feet into the water and are hooked and baited with squid, fish or rays. Sharks have been particularly hard hit by the practice as demand for shark fin soup in some Asian countries has skyrocketed in recent years. A 2007 sting operation conducted by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), an international nonprofit working to the end the practice of longlining worldwide, resulted in the confiscation of over 19,000 shark fins harvested in the GMR. SSCS estimates that between 10 and 100 miles of longline are set each day within the GMR. Longlining is not only a highly effective way to catch its intended targets, it also results in a lot of bycatch, including albatross, dolphins, whales and turtles, which try to take the bait or become tangled in the lines.

In addition to targeting sharks, illegal fishermen have also set their sights on marlin, tuna and other valuable fish, as well as other marine species that are in high demand in some Asian countries due to their gourmet, medicinal and perceived aphrodisiacal properties. These include sea cucumbers, sea horses and male sea lions, which are killed for their penises.

The Galapagos National Park is tasked with monitoring and managing the GMR and coordinates patrolling and enforcement activities within 40 nautical miles of the islands. Unfortunately, they have very small fleet at their disposal, given the size of the GMR and the magnitude of the illegal fishing problem. And even when suspects are apprehended, they often punished with a small fine, creating little disincentive for them to return. On a positive note, a new Satellite Vessel Monitory system is now being used to track large vessels within the reserve and significant progress has been made in recent years to strengthen the prosecution of marine crimes committed there.

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