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The Galápagos Fishing War

There is constant tension in Galápagos between the two main industries in the islands: fishing and tourism. Those in the fishing industry are always pushing for ecologically questionable concessions from the government such as long-line fishing, long seasons for valuable species such as lobsters and sea cucumbers, and removal of protections on marine reserves.

Long-line fishing is particularly destructive—it involves baiting several hundred hooks on the same heavy line. Used to catch swordfish and tuna, it also results in a lot of “by-catch,” or unintended catch, including sea turtles, sharks, rays, sea lions and even marine birds such as the albatross, all of which are protected in Galápagos. Ecologists are aghast that this fishing method is even being considered in such a fragile ecosystem.

Catch levels are way down in recent years, yet short-sighted fishermen continue to push for longer seasons and larger catch limits. What is worse, there is a lot of illegal fishing being done in Galápagos, both by foreign vessels fishing in Ecuadorian waters near the islands as well as local boats engaged in poaching out of season or of illegal species. In particular, sharks in Galápagos are being hunted to near extinction: they are caught for their fins, which bring a lucrative price in Asia. Sharks are caught by unscrupulous fishermen (sometimes using chopped-up sea lions as bait), their fins are cut off, and they are dumped back into the water. There is a ban on shark fishing, but Ecuador does not have the resources (or desire, apparently) to enforce it.

The tourism operators in the islands favor stringent restrictions, as unchecked fishing is severely detrimental to the ecosystem. For example, the sea cucum- ber, one of the most highly sought-after species in Galápagos, is a key link in the marine food chain.

Most Galápagos life ultimately depends on the sea: many birds feed on fish, and if the marine ecosystem collapses, there will be no more boobies, frigates or albatrosses for tourists to come and see. Therefore, tour operators are constantly pressuring the Ecuadorian government to enact and enforce strict rules for those who want to fish in Galápagos.

Most of the residents of the islands are either fishermen themselves or have family members who fish. This is true of many of the park rangers, who are charged with enforcing the rules: they often look the other way if they catch family or friends doing something illegal. The fishermen are very powerful in the islands: on more than one occasion, they have blockaded whole islands from tour vessels to protest a new ban or law, and once they even took over the Charles Darwin Research Station, held the scientists hostage, and threatened to kill Lonesome George.

Although the two sides seem beyond any sort of agreement, there are those who are working on compromises and new solu- tions; large tour operators Metropolitan Touring and Lindblad Expeditions support projects such as the “Teachers on Board” plan, in which schoolteachers from Galá- pagos spend time on cruise ships, learning about the islands from a tourism perspective. Metropolitan also has a project in which fishermen are paid to pick up trash off the islands. Perhaps in the future, fishing, wildlife and tourism will be able to coexist in these fragile islands.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to The Galápagos Islands: Marine Life - Galápagos, The Islanders Take Over, Sally Lightfoot Crabs, Striated Heron, Galápagos Giant Tortoise, Galápagos Ecotourism and Management, Swallow-Tailed Gull, Shore Birds - Galapagos, Blue-Footed Booby and Lava Heron.

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
18 May 2011

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