If you follow our Stories on Instagram, you will have seen that last Friday (14 January 2022) the President of Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso, signed an official decree to extend the boundaries of the Galapagos Marine Reserve by 60,000 sq km / 23,166 sq miles. The total area of protected ocean now covers an incredible 198,000 sq km / 76,448 sq miles and links the Galapagos with the respective marine protected areas (MPAs) of Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia. This makes it one of the largest protected seascapes in the world.
This latest push to protect the waters surrounding the Galapagos come as it faces greater threats from overfishing, particularly from Chinese vessels. In 2021 as many as 250 vessels (243 of them Chinese flagged) logged 73,000 hours of fishing a month, removing tonnes of fish from these waters. In 2017 the Ecuador navy caught a vessel with thousands of frozen sharks on board. However, China has denied all allegations of illegal fishing. If sharks are caught as by-catch, it is then legal to keep and sell them. It is thought that 250,000 sharks are caught as by-catch each year, many from fish aggregating devices (FADs), known locally as plantados. These floating fish traps operate much like wooden rafts that drift in and out of the reserve with nets as long as 100m.
As industrial-scale fishing has increased over the past two decades, the conservation status of numerous animals has worsened. Whale sharks, great hammerhead sharks, leatherback turtles and waved albatross have all become listed as critically endangered in recent years.
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While the expansion of the marine reserve is certainly a victory worth celebrating, the happy-ever-after ending we’d all like to see is still quite a few chapters ahead of us.
Ecuador owes China a sum in the region of $5 billion. During the COP25 UN Climate Summit Lasso said he hoped the plan to expand the reserve would get financing via a conservation debt swap. In November he held talks with a US development bank to raise the necessary funds, however on Friday, there was no mention of any financing agreements. Next month he will travel to China to continue the discussion. Meanwhile he faces pressure from his own fishing industry who must make longer fishing trips for smaller catches.
As is the way in politics, nothing is ever straight-forward. But Friday’s historic event is at least a step in the right direction, and we remain hopeful that the government will get the financing it needs to make these plans stable and sustainable over the decades to come.
For more information on discovering the extraordinary underwater world in the Galapagos Marine Reserve, please visit our Safari pages. All our safaris include boat trips to neighbouring uninhabited islands where visitors are given the opportunity to snorkel. We can also arrange dive safaris for those who are keen to venture a little deeper.