Earlier this year, the Ecuadorian Government made the much-celebrated decision to extend the Galapagos Marine Reserve, an additional 18,000 sq. miles. The new reserve, called Shark Sanctuary in the Galapagos Archipelago, is predominantly around the northernmost Galapagos islands, Darwin and Wolf, it will include the greatest concentration of sharks in the world and provide protection for the rich marine ecosystem upon which the sharks and thousands of other species depend.
The new marine reserve came into effect in March 2016 and deemed the protected waters off limits to all forms of resource exploitation, which includes industrial and recreational fishing. Henceforth, this area may only be used for tourism and scientific purposes.
Totaling 21 separate conservation sites and covering a total distance of 18,000 sq. miles (about the size of Belgium), approximately one-third of the water surrounding the Galapagos Archipelago is now fully protected by law – a significant increase from the less than one percent of the sanctuary that was previously fully protected.
This decision is part of a series of conservation efforts by the Ecuadorian Government to protect the remarkable biodiversity that the country prides itself on. In addition to the Galapagos Archipelago, several efforts have been made to protect the Amazon rainforest, as well as various other locations around the country. However, its proposals for the archipelago are particularly ambitious. Come 2020, the government plans to use 100% renewable energy to power the islands and, as a part of this, it has already invested in the first wind turbines and solar panels in the Galapagos.
Threats to the islands
The Galapagos Islands are world-famous for the remarkably unique array of life they hold both on land and in their waters. Approximately 3,000 species of invertebrates, fish, endemic seabirds and marine mammals depend on the archipelago’s rich waters to survive, including albatrosses, whales, marine iguanas, fur seals, cormorants, dolphins, sharks, penguins, sea lions, sea turtles and rays. In fact, at an average of 17.5 tons per hectare, the archipelago has one of the highest reef fish biomasses in the world, second only to Cocos Island National Park in Costa Rica. Furthermore, around 20% of this life is endemic to the islands, meaning it is found nowhere else in the world. It is thanks to this wealth and diversity that the Galapagos Marine Reserve was given the title of an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.
Nevertheless, as is happening all over the world, the Galapagos Islands and the surrounding waters are facing increasing threats from global warming and overfishing. Scientists have determined the acidity of the ocean to be rising in addition to water levels and temperatures. This in turn threatens the delicate marine ecosystem, as well as the intricate balance between marine and terrestrial habitats, thus effecting species such as the marine iguanas and Galapagos penguin.
Nevertheless, the main focus of the new marine reserve is to protect the shark sanctuary that live in these newly protected waters, which make up the largest concentration in the world. 34 species of sharks live in the waters that surround the archipelago, including the Galapagos shark, the migratory hammerhead and the filter-feeding whale shark. The reserve is an important move for shark populations, as their numbers have been rapidly decreasing over the past decade, with around 100 million sharks killed each year (6 – 8% of the entire shark population). The hope is that the new sanctuary will provide sharks with safe breeding grounds so that they can successfully reproduce away from the threat of fishing boats.
As Galapagos fishermen watch fish populations fall, they have put increasing pressure on the government to expand fishing opportunities in the Galapagos, representing a potential challenge to this decision. However, the marine project sees several benefits for fishermen, including compensation to local fishing cooperatives thanks to support from the National Geographic Foundation.
Furthermore, according to studies on other no-take zones around the world, marine reserves actually cause fish populations outside of the protected zone to increase due to their improved reproductive success within the zone, in the end benefitting fishermen. However, the island populations are even more impacted by the enormous indirect benefit this marine reserve will have. It was recently determined that just one shark in the Galapagos is worth around $5.4 million throughout the course of its life. On the other hand, a dead shark is worth just US$ 200.