Experts, Galapagos residents and the Galapagos-loving world are celebrating the recent decision by the Ecuadorian Government to extend the Galapagos Marine Reserve by an additional 18,000 sq. miles in an effort to protect the world’s greatest concentration of sharks and the precious marine sanctuary, which they depend on.
Conservation efforts in Marine Sanctuary
As of March 2016, the waters surrounding the northernmost Galapagos Islands, Darwin and Wolf, have been declared off limits to resource exploitation, including both recreational and industrial fishing. The area is henceforth destined solely for scientific use and tourism.
The new marine sanctuary and the 21 smaller conservation sites cover approximately 18,000 sq. miles, which is around one-third of the water that surrounds the Galapagos Islands. To better put this into perspective, the new sanctuary is about the size of Belgium. This is a very important step for the archipelago because, although 97% of the Galapagos land mass is protected, until March 2016 not even one percent of the surrounding ocean was fully protected.
This new marine sanctuary is part of recent conservation actions taken by Ecuador to protect the unique biodiversity that the country prides itself on, including the Galapagos archipelago, the Amazon rainforest and several other habitats throughout the country. The project for the Galapagos Islands is particularly ambitious; the Ecuadorian government hopes to power the islands with 100% renewable energy by 2020, and it has already installed the first wind turbines and solar panels to do so. In fact, it is hoping to achieve 90% fossil fuel free power for the entire country by 2017, investing billions of dollars to do so.
Unique Galapagos biodiversity…in danger?
The Galapagos Archipelago supports an abundant and spectacularly unique array of life, and is host some of the most biodiverse waters in the world. The water is home to around 3,000 species of fish, invertebrates, marine mammals, and endemic seabirds, including whales, dolphins, albatrosses, sharks, sea lions, marine iguanas, penguins, fur seals, rays, cormorants, and sea turtles. In fact, experts have determined that the reef fish biomass reaches an average of 17.5 tons per hectare, double the second highest biomass known to science, located in the waters surrounding Cocos Island National Park, Costa Rica. To top this off, nearly 20% of that marine life is found nowhere else in the world. The wealth of these waters earned the marine habitat the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.
Furthermore, these rich waters are essential to maintaining life on land. Land-based species such as the Galapagos penguin, iguanas and flightless cormorants are fully dependent on the conditions of the surrounding waters, forming an intricate and sensitive relationship between the terrestrial and marine habitats.
However, in recent years, the Galapagos Archipelago and the surrounding waters have come under increased pressure as a result of global warming, and greater levels of legal and illegal fishing. Studies reveal that the acidity of the ocean is rising, as well as water levels and temperatures, thus altering the ecosystems and behavior of the animals that live nearby, increasing the need for protection.
The new marine sanctuary focuses more specifically on protecting the world’s largest concentration of sharks. A total of 34 shark species feed off the rich waters around these islands, including the filter-feeding whale shark, the migratory hammerhead and the Galapagos shark. The world’s shark populations have been declining rapidly in recent years – approximately 100 million sharks are killed each year world-wide – amounting to around 6-8% of all of the sharks in the ocean. Shark populations are simply unable to reproduce at the same rate.
The aim of the new sanctuary is to create a safe breeding ground for shark populations where they can grow to their full size and help to repopulate the world’s oceans. There is a also hope that the extension of the Galapagos marine sanctuary will increase pressure on other governmental groups to strengthen ocean conservation, increase action against shark finning and implement more ambitious action on climate change.
However, in addition, this new sanctuary also represents a powerful economic engine for the islands and the country. A recent study found that each shark in the Galapagos is worth approximately $5.4 million over its lifetime, whereas fisherman can get just US$ 200 for a dead shark.
As fish populations decrease, the government has faced increasing pressure to expand fishing in the Galapagos, as the fishermen have very few financial alternatives. However, this new scheme offers compensation to local fishing cooperatives, thanks to support by the National Geographic Foundation. Additionally, based on other no-take zones, such reserves have proven to benefit local fisherman, as the amount of fish outside of the protected zone increases thanks to their reproductive success within it.
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