Getting to 30x30 in the Galapagos

Richard Branson by the sea on Necker Island, smiling at the camera
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Published on 25 October 2021

The Galapagos Marine Reserve made headlines recently for all the wrong reasons. “Chinese fishing fleet threatens Galapagos Islands” was somewhat misleading. While the large fleet undoubtedly pressure international fish stocks, it was outside Ecuador’s 200-mile territorial waters and well outside the Galapagos Marine Reserve’s (GMR) 40 nautical miles. 

While the Galapagos National Park continued operating its patrol fleet within the GMR, the Ecuadorian Navy dispatched two Corbett patrol vessels and an airplane for aerial surveillance. Satellite imaging data confirmed the location of the Chinese fishing fleet and reported no incursions into sovereign waters.

So, the Islands remained safe, and the Ecuadorian government is commendably now contemplating creating a corridor to another biodiversity hotspot, Cocos Island, in Costa Rican waters to help meet - global campaign goals to expand marine protected areas to strongly protect at least 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030.

In fact, the GMR is now one of the best enforced reserves in the developing world and can act as a model for other countries struggling to protect their ocean waters. Located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are a treasured natural wonder of the world, home to nearly 3,000 marine species, of which approximately 20% are found nowhere else on Earth.

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Spectacular marine wildlife resides there, including many species of whales, sea turtles, giant manta rays, penguins and 34 types of sharks, such as the endangered scalloped hammerhead.

Right back to the Moby Dick era of whaling, the Galapagos Islands have historically been a magnet for rampant resource extraction. For decades, illegal fishing, shark finning, and poaching of other desirable species, like giant tortoises and sea cucumbers, threatened to decimate the islands’ rich wildlife. But in 1998 Ecuador protected the region by creating the GMR. Industrial fishing and mining were banned. Approximately 30,000 people inhabit the islands and depend on a thriving ocean economy, centred around eco-tourism and local fishing.

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For nearly 20 years, the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) and the Ecuadorian Navy have worked with the nonprofit WildAid and other partners to improve enforcement of the GMR. They have acquired satellite vessel monitoring systems and automatic identification systems that remotely monitor 100% of the vessels sailing in and around the GMR. Park personnel have patrol kits and protective equipment, receive specialised training and legal technical assistance to support prosecutions. The GNPD also hosted peer-to-peer exchanges and regional workshops for other Latin American countries.

The GMR now boasts the densest shark population in the world and poachers and illegal fishers understand the grave consequences of entering. In 2019 one Chinese boat that passed illegally through the GMR ended up with a US $6.1 million fine and forfeiture of the vessel. 

The story of the GMR shows that political will and meaningful investment in marine enforcement can deliver real protection for our most critical marine resources. Expanding upon the success of the GMR to strengthen marine enforcement throughout Central and South America will also be key to ensure endangered marine wildlife can migrate and move safely throughout the region.

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Many established MPAs around the world still struggle to control illegal fishing and poaching due to a lack of enforcement, funding, staffing, equipment, boats, and more. We must work together to drive investment into these areas to make sure that they can be the biodiversity positive reservoirs that the ocean and planet so sorely need.

Real protection, like the Galapagos Islands enjoy, requires comprehensive surveillance and enforcement, strong policies and consequences for illegal activity, sustainable financing, and effective collaboration between governments, communities, and nonprofits.

As the global community moves to protect more of the ocean by 2030, we must ensure that marine areas are fully protected and well-enforced.