Galapagos Marine Reserve | October 30th, 2009

The news bulletins from the Galapagos National Park Authority continue to feature activities relating to the control of fishing and other marine activities.  While the management of tourism activities continues to gain a high profile internationally, the marine reserve is far more imperilled by human activities and less often thought about.

As just one example, the lobster fishing season started in August, and by the time the 160 day season finishes many tonnes of these animals will have been removed from the reserve (the quota for red lobster is 30 tonnes of tails, but there is no quota limit for green lobster). Managing the fishery is a major task for the national parks authority – inspecting catches to ensure no under-size or egg-carrying lobsters are taken; intercepting illegal exports, and intercepting unauthorised fishing operations.

They hope that these activities will make the fishery sustainable, but the removal in bulk of one component of the ecosystem will undoubtedly have significant effects on the overall integrity of the system.  One of the major lessons from New Zealand’s marine reserve network is that we don’t really know what we are doing to the marine environment until we establish “no-take” reserves.  The first of these at Leigh experienced major changes in vegetation patterns that were completely unexpected – no-one had realised how great an effect removing the predators of kina (e.g. snapper) was having on the overall system.  I have seen urchin barrens in the Galapagos that look very like what Leigh had before the reserve was established – are those natural or the effect of fishing? 

The community in the Galapagos, and internationally, is focused on the obviously unsustainable illegal fishing – shark finning, over-harvest of sea cucumbers, etc.  But there is little useful discussion about the effect of “sustainable” fishing.  And the Ecuadorian authorities are reluctant to question fishing per se.  Local fishermen have been prepared to use extreme tactics to fight any controls on their activities – barricading the park/station area; assaulting senior park managers, threatening with firearms, etc – and the police and military have let them get away with it. The result is that a culture of entitlement has built up. The National Park Authority recently “compensated” fishermen for the closing of the sea cucumber season by providing them with work cleaning up beaches.  The clean-up programme is probably positive, but the use of the term “compensation” is not.  It is yet another symptom of the entitlement culture.

Add to that the increase in investment in fishing infrastructure (e.g. there are now mainland-based mother ships operating in the reserve) and the ability to protect the marine environment in the long term is being steadily eroded.

On a more positive note, scientists have discovered three new coral species, one of which was thought to be extinct, raising hopes that reefs may be more resilient to rising sea temperatures than previously thought.  (For the full report see  But the experience internationally is that resilience to climate change is far greater in systems that do not also face other human pressures – i.e. within fully protected marine reserves.

This is an issue that needs greater attention by the international community.