Like a thick scarf, the Galápagos Marine Reserve encircles its namesake islands, protecting 133,000 square kilometers (51,400 square miles) of nutrient-rich ocean that supports nearly 3,000 marine species. But the current reserve, which was once the second-largest in the world (now ranked 33rd), is no longer enough to protect the biodiverse waters around the Galápagos Islands, according to a coalition of scientists, conservationists, NGOs and members of the public. The solution, they say, is to extend the marine reserve by an extra 445,953 km2 (172,183 mi2) — more than triple the size of the existing marine protected area.

On Jan. 20, advocates for the extended marine reserve delivered a petition with more than 32,000 signatures of support to Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, along with a scientific proposal that presents a configuration of the reserve that would maximize protection of the delicate ecosystems while also sustaining Ecuador’s fishing industries.

The proposal, which is publicly available in Spanish on the website of the citizen initiative Más Galápagos, argues that the extended marine reserve could help avert the precipitous decline of migratory species, stave off the threat of illegal and unsustainable fishing, and even mitigate the effects of climate change, if properly managed and enforced.

César Peñaherrera-Palma, a marine biologist, science coordinator at the NGO MigraMar and one of the proposal’s authors, said he and his colleagues had gathered data from a range of scientific and governmental sources, and generated a design for the extended marine reserve using the Marxan analytical software, which is commonly used to plan marine protected areas (MPAs). The proposed extension, which surrounds the islands’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), considers the migratory routes of threatened species, the location of ecologically important marine features such as seamounts, and fishing activity hotspots. It also melds together with the Galapagos-Cocos Swimway, a 120,000-km2 (46,332-mi2) stretch of ocean that runs along the underwater Cocos Ridges between the Galápagos and Costa Rica that is an established, albeit unprotected, migratory route for sharks, turtles and other transient species.

“The idea at the end of the day was to try to model how much can we protect, outside of the [existing marine reserve], and how much will be in conflict with the income that the fisheries are obtaining from the high seas outside of the marine reserve,” Peñaherrera-Palma told Mongabay in an interview. “[What we were trying to achieve] is a middle point between the preservation of wildlife and economic activity.”

But not everyone is in favor of the proposal. Some in Ecuador’s fishing sector oppose it, claiming it will negatively impact purse-seine tuna fishing, which generates more than $1 billion in exports. Critics also say the expanded reserve will not solve the region’s fundamental problems, such as overfishing and illegal fishing, and that the tuna industry is shouldering the blame for issues beyond its control.

‘There’s a heck of a lot worth protecting’

One of the central arguments for the expansion of the Galápagos Marine Reserve (GMR) is the necessity to protect and maintain genetic diversity among iconic migratory species, many of which are decreasing in number due to anthropogenic pressures such as fishing, the proposal says.

“[T]he current size of the GMR has not been sufficient to provide conservation benefits to highly migratory species and to those that forage outside the protected area, in particular sharks, sea turtles  and seabirds,” an English translation of the Más Galápagos proposal reads. “During the establishment of the GMR in the 1990s, knowledge about the biology and movement patterns of several key threatened migratory species was very limited.”

The proposal lists 20 migratory species whose conservation status has worsened in the past two decades. This includes the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), which went from vulnerable to endangered, the oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus), which went from near threatened to critically endangered, and the leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), which went from endangered to critically endangered, according to the IUCN Red List. The only species shown to be making a slight recovery is the olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea), which went from endangered to vulnerable.

Many of these species are also slow to mature, and when they do, they produce few offspring. This makes them particularly vulnerable to population collapse if individuals are caught by fishing vessels, either intentionally or accidentally as bycatch, the proposal suggests.

“There’s a heck of a lot worth protecting,” Shawn Heinrichs, conservationist and co-founder of SeaLegacy, an international NGO supporting the Galápagos campaign, told Mongabay in an interview. “But what’s also very apparent is certain species, particularly tuna and sharks, have suffered immeasurably, because those animals don’t just sit in one place. They move around, they’re migratory. And because the park boundaries are close enough, there is a massive domestic fishing fleet compounded by … 13 to 16 other countries’ fleets that operate around the [Galápagos] EEZ, and also come in … illegally into the park boundaries, extracting those animals. And so what’s really desperately needed has been a big ring expansion around Galápagos [which is what] those species in that habitat protection deserve.”

‘We will protect the core fishing grounds’

The proposal doesn’t just consider threatened species; it also takes the fishing industry into account, especially the tuna industry, which is a major income source for the Ecuadoran economy. The design includes two recommended “responsible fishing zones” (RFZs), which would allow fishing under certain conditions. The first is a 195,849-km2 (75,618-mi2) area on the western side of the current Galápagos Marine Reserve that “includes the most important fishing areas for the purse-seine tuna fishing fleet and the semi-industrial longline fleet, as well as two spillover areas towards the north and south of the main fishing grounds,” according to the proposal. The other RFZ, at 29,534 km2 (11,403 mi2), would lie on the eastern side of the GMR, and would prohibit the use of fish-aggregating devices (FADs) to avoid the risk of overfishing.

Another 33,852-km2 (13,070-mi2) area along the western edge of the current reserve would allow fishing in all years except when an El Niño event takes place. During these periods, the area would act as “a de facto No-Take Area … as a precautionary measure for endemic species that would not normally leave the GMR, but whose foraging ranges expand during these seasonal events,” the proposal says.

While fishing would be confined to these three regions, Peñaherrera-Palma says the fishing industry would not be “significantly impacted by the expansion of the Galápagos.”

“One of the critical concerns of the industrial fishing fleet is … that by expanding the Galápagos, we are going to block the operation around the Galápagos, and we are going to economically impact them very hard,” he said. “That’s definitely not happening, and they will still have areas [where they can responsibly fish] around the Galápagos … and these areas [are places] where they gain the most. We will protect the core fishing grounds by adopting this expansion scenario.”

According to the proposal, the extended reserve would even help preserve tuna and other fish stocks, which, in turn, would yield bigger catches. It is also suggested that the marine reserve expansion would help tackle the persistent threat of illegal fishing within the EEZ of the Galápagos.

Eliecer Cruz, a former governor of the Galápagos and spokesperson for Más Galápagos, who spoke to Mongabay through a translator, said an extended marine reserve would make it more difficult for vessels to access places that are currently illegal fishing “hotspots,” and that groups like Más Galápagos are working to “better understand and effectively manage, monitor and enforce the newly created area.”

And then, of course, there’s climate change to consider. According to a 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report referenced in the proposal, fish stocks around the Galápagos may be less affected by climate change than in other parts of the world, which would make the region even more desirable for foreign fishing vessels looking to fill their nets. The Galápagos region is already frequented by a profusion of foreign fishing vessels each year, as seen by the more than 300 Chinese ships that crowded around the Galápagos EEZ to catch squid last summer, some of which may have illegally entered the EEZ.

“Not only are we going to have the problem of a yearly visit of the Chinese fleet at the moment, but in the future, we will probably have other fleets from other countries trying to visit the area and fishing in the area,” Luis Villanueva, an officer at Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project, a partnership between Pew Charitable Trusts and the Bertarelli Foundation, told Mongabay in an interview. “This is something that the government should be concerned about, and the government should plan for.”

‘How can they control this new huge area?’

While there is both national and international support for the extended marine reserve in the Galápagos, there’s also pushback from the fishing sector, especially from purse-seine tuna fisheries. Leaders within Ecuador’s fishing community say the extension is unnecessary, and its establishment would actually hinder their ability to work.

Bruno Leone, president of the National Chamber of Fisheries of Ecuador, says he believes the idea for the expanded marine reserve stemmed from the issue with the Chinese fishing fleet, but that increased protection wouldn’t solve the problem. Nor would it solve the issue of illegal fishing, he said.

“We know, because we have read reports, that the Galápagos problems come from other reasons — not the tuna fishing,” Leone told Mongabay in an interview. “And what we have said is that if they cannot control the actual area of 133,000 square kilometers, how can they control this new huge 435,000-square-kilometer area?”

According to Leone, Ecuador’s tuna fleet would not benefit from increased protection, as the proposal suggests, since tuna are migratory and swim in different parts of the ocean. If Ecuadoran fishers are restricted to certain areas, their job would become increasingly difficult, he said.

Leone says the proposal was not properly discussed with the fishing sector.

“[There is] no study that supports the position, no data, nothing,” he said. “They [conservationists] always said we want to give you our point of view, we’re going to give you studies, but [they] never gave anything,” he said. “And one day … we find out about the proposal through the newspaper, which we consider inappropriate.”

On the other hand, Cruz from Más Galápagos says the coalition held three meetings with the industry to go over information about the proposed marine reserve, prior to the proposal being completed and presented to the president.

Guillermo Morán, a fisheries engineer and managing director of Tuna Conservation Group (TUNACONS), a coalition of tuna companies committed to sustainable fishing practices, says he also does not think the proposal is based on solid research, and that Ecuador’s tuna fishing fleet shouldn’t be blamed for a decline in the region’s biodiversity.

He added the fishing sector is open to dialogue, but recommends that any conservation measures be passed through the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), responsible for the management and conservation of tuna resources in the eastern Pacific Ocean, “so that the experts of this organization can make their respective analysis and recommendations.”

“The information was just delivered a few days ago and this will take us a few weeks of review to sit down and talk with all the necessary groups,” Morán told Mongabay in a text message. “It is also very important that the different instances of the national government related to fisheries and maritime administration issue their pertinent scientific, technical and legal opinions on these proposals.”

While there appears to be steady opposition from the fishing sector, not all are in agreement. This week, members of a group called the Federation of Fishing Organizations and Analogue of Ecuador (FOPAE by its Spanish acronym) issued a press release, which was circulated on social media, expressing discontent with not being invited to a recent fisheries summit where the proposed marine reserve expansion was being discussed.

“We’ve learned from the press that one of the agreements reached [is] to strongly reject any initiative to enlarge the Galápagos Marine Reserve or similar alternatives that violate the rights of the sector and prevent it from sustaining the work,’” the FOPAE press release said in Spanish. “Our position, as the Federation of Fishing Organizations of Ecuador is that ‘We do agree with the creation of a new Marine Protected Area for the Galápagos in our Ecuadoran continental shelf.’ This would benefit our sector, allowing the sustainability of our hydrobiological fishery resources in the long term.”

‘Sealing the deal’

Villanueva of the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project says any resistance to the proposed expansion is a simply an “issue of power.”

“There is a great deal of political pressure coming from the industrial fishing sector,” he said. “The industrial fishing sector has zero interest in an expansion of the marine reserve. It doesn’t matter if this expansion is good for them or not.”

Despite the difficulties in working with the fishing sector, Villanueva said Pew and its partners are also putting a “very good package in front of the government” to help facilitate the expansion’s approval.

“The main criticism is how are we going to pay for the implementation of this humongous marine reserve,” he said. “I am here to tell you, and this is my golden nugget, we have been in conversations with the government of Ecuador to implement a sustainable finance mechanism. I cannot go into more details with you, but it’s a mechanism under which the government of Ecuador will be fully funded to correctly implement the management plan of the expanded reserve, and it would be fully funded ad infinitum with some benefits in terms of the national debt of Ecuador.”

Cruz, speaking through an interpreter, said he will do everything in his power to get this marine reserve approved during the current administration. That means it would have to happen within the next week, as President Moreno is not running for a second term in the election set for Feb. 7. If that doesn’t happen, then Cruz says he is “very confident that the next administration will be interested in sealing the deal.”

Fuente: Mongabay