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Protecting the Galápagos from Illegal Fishing

At 51,000 square miles, Ecuador’s Galápagos Marine Reserve (GMR) is one of the world’s largest marine protected areas. Due to its isolation, over 20% of the terrestrial and marine species in the Galápagos Islands are found nowhere else on earth. 

Sadly, it’s also a hotbed for illegal fishing activity that threatens the archipelago’s biodiversity. WildAid estimates that at any given time, there are between 1-5 commercial vessels fishing around the GMR, with illegal take of sea cucumber, lobster, and several species of tuna, shark and billfish.

Ecuadorian commercial longliners from the continent are the primary threat to the Galápagos, with crews often towing smaller boats that enter the reserve. (Costa Rican and Colombian fishermen pose a threat as well.) We also estimate that some operations are tied to organized crime: Contraband includes narcotics, shark fin and fuel, which is heavily subsidized by the Ecuadorian government and is sold at sea. 

Working in cooperation with the Galápagos National Park Service and partners, WildAid aims to make this reserve the best-protected marine reserve in the developing world.

Recently, we partnered with colleagues at World Wildlife Fund to conduct a three-day operations and marine enforcement training with over 40 wardens from the Galápagos as well as continental protected areas such as Machalilla, Pacoche and Santa Clara.

Among the training modules were a series of scenarios that involved law enforcement boarding fishing vessels engaged in potential illegal activity. Boarding a suspicious vessel can be extremely dangerous: Illegal fishermen can become violent, and if drugs are being trafficked, the crew may possess firearms. We train rangers how to identify suspicious actions when approaching a vessel, how to interrogate the crew and how to conduct crime scene investigation strategy, among other core procedures.

Patrolling such a vast reserve presents a significant challenge for park enforcement officers. The good news is that the Ecuadorian navy and the Galápagos National Park Service possess sophisticated electronic monitoring systems — in large part due to foreign assistance and in direct contrast to many marine protected areas throughout the developing world.

WildAid currently is integrating electronic monitoring sensors, crafting standard operating procedures for key maritime vigilance activities, delivering annual refresher courses and planning to carry out performance-based patrol vessel acquisitions in cooperation with the Galápagos National Park Service.

We’re also looking into the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) to carry out perimeter scans of the reserve, or to be sent where there is suspicious activity. For example, the presence of a large vessel outside of the reserve could be viewed via what’s known as a vessel monitoring system. But determining whether or not such a vessel is waiting for smaller boats illegally fishing within the Galápagos reserve would require the use of a UAV.  

Students of our course were incredibly enthusiastic about the training — these men and women on the frontlines of conservation are genuinely dedicated and focused on protecting Ecuador’s marine environment.

Read more about the Galápagos Marine Reserve here