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Strong Law Enacted to Protect Galápagos, But Fishing Remains a Threat

sea lionWWF Activists are Stalwart Crusaders for the Galápagos

Conservation Action Network activists have weighed in several times now to protect the world renowned resources of the Galápagos Islands. Read on for an update on activist involvement and key events in the history of the conservation of the Galápagos. As you will see, despite some important victories, there have been some setbacks and continuing challenges. 

A relatively unspoiled ecological and evolutionary treasure trove, the Galápagos Islands sparkle like gems in the Pacific ocean. Biologists estimate that the Galápagos have retained an amazing nearly 95 percent of their initial biodiversity. Sadly, the islands face many threats including overharvesting of marine resources, introduction of exotic species, and increased immigration.

Activists Push for Passage of Galápagos Special Law

In 1998, Conservation Action Network activists successfully pushed for passage of the Galápagos Special Law, a series of sweeping protective measures. The law's enactment was a landmark in the effort to conserve and protect these singular islands and their unique plants and animals. Among other things, it created the Galápagos Marine Reserve, the second largest marine reserve in the world.tortoise

The Galápagos Marine Reserve covers 133,000 square kilometers. Numerous species of reptiles, birds, and mammals that inhabit the terrestrial areas of the Archipelago depend directly on the sea for their survival. Fifty-seven species of birds live in the Galápagos, and more than 30 of them depend on the ocean to obtain food. In addition, the islands are a sanctuary for threatened whales and turtles.

In early 2001, a grounded ship spilled more than 200,000 gallons of diesel and bunker fuel, threatening the islands. In response, WWF donated $100,000 to help fund clean-up efforts and created a special Galápagos Emergency Response Center to monitor the clean-up and help mobilize the financial and technical resources necessary to mitigate the long-term damage.

Special Law Faces Continuing Challenges

The Galápagos Special Law has faced continued challenges, primarily from the industrial fishing sector based in continental Ecuador, 600 miles east of the islands. The group seeks fishing rights inside the marine reserve. (The special law granted exclusive fishing rights within the reserve to artisanal fishermen.) Fortunately, in 2001 a legal challenge to the fishing restrictions contained in the special law was defeated. However, the industrial fishing community is continuing to push for at least part of the reserve to be open to them.

Threats to long-term conservation of the Galápagos have also come from the artisanal fishermen. In late 2000 and early 2001, Conservation Action Network activists sent more than 7,000 messages urging the President of Ecuador to uphold fisheries management provisions and not give in to the demands of fishermen who were using violence to protest limits on their lobster catches. The fishing community had exceeded their 50-metric-ton seasonal limit of lobster in just two months and wanted to continue fishing without restrictions. With almost twice as many fishermen registered as the previous year, this would have seriously depleted the lobster populations and reduced future harvests. They were also demanding a lifting of the current ban on shark fishing and the opening of nontraditional fisheries such as sea urchins, octopuses, and squids.

Unfortunately, the government increased the lobster quota to 80 metric tons and allowed the fishermen to fish until the end of the season. Because some fishermen did not allow the government to monitor their catch, it is likely that they caught more than 80 metric tons. In addition, the government opened a four-month lobster season in September 2001 with no catch limits. The fishermen were allowed to fish without limits this time in exchange for their agreeing to monitor fishing and to accept a closure of the marine reserve to new fishermen.

Regulations that would impose a number of needed restrictions on artisanal fishing have been drafted and are close to being finalized, but the artisanal fishermen are pushing to weaken the regulations.

Fishermen Protest Again in Early 2004

Protesting fisherman occupied a national park office and research center on the Galápagos Islands in February 2004. They ended their action peacefully, but not before reaching a misguided agreement with the government that could have spelled big problems down the road for the Islands' fragile marine environment and the people who depend on it.

The new agreement contained a long list of half promises to weaken the carefully balanced regulations controlling fishing, tourism, and other activities in the Galápagos National Park and the Marine Reserve. Those rules were developed to benefit both the environment and local people. They also establish a process for addressing many of the valid concerns of the fishermen.

WWF activists sent 35,000 messages in early 2004 urging the Ecuadorian government to rethink the agreement reached with the protesting fishermen. Subsequently, the minister of environment who signed the agreement resigned and a new minister, who is an expert in crisis negotiations, was appointed. After a series of meetings with representatives of various interests, the new minister announced that the government did not support the agreement signed by the previous minister and that the needs of the fishermen would be addressed within the context of the participatory management process established by the Galápagos Special Law. WWF activists had pushed for just such a solution: one that respected the original Galápagos Special Law -- under which the regulations were developed -- as the only way to help fishermen and all the people of the Galápagos live in harmony with nature.

Past Alerts
Prevent Destructive Fishing in the Galapagos - 2/26/2004
Protect the Galápagos - 11/22/2000
Galápagos Islands Need Your Help - 2/6/1998