Clustered in the Pacific Ocean 660 miles (996 kilometers) off Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands provide a critical refuge for an estimated 3,000 marine species, including whales, dolphins, sharks, sea lions, rays, sea turtles, tuna, and tropical fish. The archipelago, which is part of Ecuador, hosts some of the world’s highest levels of endemism—species found nowhere else. Yet the region faces threats from climate change, overfishing, and declining overall ocean health, due in part to years-long increases in commercial fishing. In 2020, nearly 300 international industrial fishing vessels—up from 60 ships in 2018—were seen fishing at the border of Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone, raising concerns about additional pressure on Ecuador’s marine resources, which were already experiencing increased domestic commercial fishing.
In 1998, Ecuador established the Galápagos Marine Reserve (GMR), which restricted fishing and other extractive activities in 12.4% of the waters surrounding the islands. This benefited the marine ecosystem, the fishing industry, and the local community—despite predictions of economic harm from the industrial fishing sector—and experts now believe that expanding those protections could further safeguard endangered migratory species, with minimal impact on Ecuadorian fishers.
In the 10 years following creation of the GMR, which covers 133,000 square kilometers and allows artisanal fishing in some areas, productivity for commercial tuna fishers nearly doubled in the areas adjacent to the protected area, according to a 2017 analysis. The increased productivity can largely be attributed to a “spillover effect,” which occurs when species can breed and grow to full size in protected areas, and then move outside them, where they can be caught legally.
Researchers also concluded that the reserve may have increased available fish populations for Ecuador’s tuna fleet and helped cushion the impacts of declining global tuna stocks, caused by overfishing. In fact, between 1998 and 2018, Ecuador’s purse-seine fleet nearly tripled in size from 40 to 116 vessels, tuna exports grew by 67%, according to data from Ecuador’s central bank.
Driven by people wanting to experience the region’s iconic wildlife, with highly mobile megafauna such as sharks, rays, sea turtles, marine mammals, and seabirds often the main attraction, tourism provides the foundation for the economy of the Galápagos Islands. Experts say long-term success for this sector depends on the continued health of the area’s marine ecosystem and biodiversity. Protecting key migration routes for these vital species would mean healthier and more abundant populations, and could benefit tourism activities in the region and possibly beyond.
The existing GMR offers important protections for highly migratory species such as sharks, sea turtles, and seabirds, and much more is needed. In fact, the conservation status for the majority of threatened migratory species in the region has worsened since the start of the 21st century. Scientific knowledge about the biology and movement patterns of these species has increased greatly since the establishment of the GMR and this data can help inform new protections.
In late 2020, a team of Ecuadorian and international scientists developed a proposal outlining a series of scenarios to strengthen protection around the GMR, while ensuring the most productive fishing areas are kept open to the Ecuadorian fishing industry. The proposal allows Ecuador’s industrial fleet to maintain access to the most productive fishing grounds. Only a small portion of the fleet’s total catch value—less than 5%—would need to come from other areas to maintain current revenues. However, over time, the fleet could benefit from the same spillover effect that was seen around the existing marine reserve.
Similarly, artisanal fishers from the Galápagos could see more abundant and larger fish—potentially yielding lower fishing costs and better prices—and would benefit from improved enforcement and reduced illegal fishing activity.
Galápagonians have expressed broad support for expanding the GMR. In a recent poll, 87% of respondents said expanded marine protections would benefit the local community. Among this group, 62% of people listed protections for marine species as a potential benefit, while 52% cited more abundant fishing resources to the local community. Respondents also listed tourism, increased economic opportunities, and improvement to environmental services as potential benefits of a larger marine reserve.
Recent expansions of marine protected areas (MPAs) elsewhere back up this optimism. For example, a recent analysis showed that the Hawaiian tuna industry benefited from the expansion of two large MPAs—the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
There is growing agreement among global leaders, Indigenous groups, and scientists that it is necessary to protect and conserve at least 30% of Earth’s coastal and marine areas by 2030 to secure and maintain a healthy ocean, support ocean resilience in the face of climate change, improve food security, and more. Ecuador has expressed its commitment to achieving this target, and expanding the current GMR provides an opportunity for leaders in the region to move closer to protecting 30% of Ecuadorian waters. The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project supports the establishment and expansion of large-scale marine protected areas and is working with the government, local community, and other partners in the Galápagos Islands to safeguard one of the world’s most iconic marine ecosystems.
Ashleigh Cirilla is a senior manager and Luis Villanueva is an officer supporting the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project’s work in the Galápagos. Susana Cárdenas and Alex Hearn are researchers at the University of San Francisco de Quito and significantly contributed to the 2018 economic analysis of the current Galápagos Marine Reserve and the expansion proposal.
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