Illegal Fisherman Caught in Galapagos

Last week, park rangers from the Galapagos Marine Reserve successfully identified and apprehended the crew of Maria Tatiana IV, an Ecuadorian commercial fishing vessel, that was carrying out illegal fishing operations within the biodiverse and off-limits Marine Reserve. When rangers caught and seized the boats, they discovered a catch of 160 endangered and protected sharks and fish species.  After being notified through their electronic monitoring program, which tracks all large fishing and tourism vessels, Galapagos park rangers teamed up with the Ecuadorian Navy and embarked on a nearly 24 hour chase to find and arrest the crew and their illegal fishing equipment.  A large commercial fishing boat accompanied by 6 smaller fiberglass boats were taken, and the 21 crewman arrested.  The process of sentencing and bringing justice to the Galapagos is now underway.  This is a monumental victory for Galapagos park rangers as it is one of the over 100 similar situations in which their new park monitoring technology has allowed them to properly enforce the international and local marine life protections.

photo courtesy of WildAid

Photo Courtesy of WildAid

Shark finning, the brutal sawing off of shark’s fins to be sold and used to make shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy, fuels the deaths of 73 million sharks each year.  The illegal catch from the Galapagos would have been sold as shark fins, if they had not been caught by local authorities.  The illegal catch was found to have a total of 81 sharks, comprising of: 36 silky, 24 blue, 14 pelagic thresher, 6 bigeye thresher, and even a great white shark.  Ever since Darwin arrived on the shores of the Galapagos to study the natural beauty and unique biodiversity of the island, it has been regarded as one of the last refuges for rare and endangered species.  The creation of the Galapagos Marine Reserve along with other national parks surrounding nearby islands, recognizes the vitality of this island reef system to the Pacific an

Park Rangers assessing the illegal catch. Photo Courtesy of WildAid.

Park Rangers assessing the illegal catch. Photo Courtesy of WildAid.

d the need to preserve these amazing species.  Ecuador has an acute problem with controlling and limiting long-line fishing and trawling which have the most ecological consequences, due to their high bycatch rates. These unsustainable fishing methods that are designed to catch a wide variety of animals and cover large distances, often entrap many non-target species, such as sharks, dolphins, and turtles which are considered bycatch. With shark populations plummeting due to an onslaught of factors including shark finning, bycatch, and climate change, efforts to protect them and effectively enforce fishing legislation is more important than ever.  

Electronic Monitoring System to Fight Marine Crime

As a preventative step to combat further overfishing of important apex predator populations, marine reserves that are off-limits to fishing are being created in order to repopulate popular species targeted by the industrial fishing industry.  The Galapagos have taken it a step further and installed the trifecta of electronic monitoring systems which includes: long-range camera surveillance, AIS real-time ship tracking, and park ranger surveying.  Close collaboration with nonprofit groups and the Ecuadorian Navy have also been a crucial factor in achieving such success in preventing and intercepting illegal fishing activity.  The electronic surveillance system, which was first installed in 2009, tracks all large fishing and tourism vessels that enter the Reserve so that rangers can monitor their activities and more effectively enforce the law.   Many times, without such video surveillance and consequential video evidence admissible in trial, perpetrators would go free without strict sentencing or punishment for their crimes.  This year an updated version of this technology is being piloted in a nearby marine protected area called Machalilla National Park, and would track every boat that enters the area regardless of size.  This would add another 11,000 small boats and vessels to ranger’s radar that were previously unmonitored on a regular basis.  By not only dedicated 15,000 square miles to preserving the ocean ecosystem, tourism, unique and threatened marine life, Ecuador has seen great results through the this program, as many shark species have been able to rebound and other threatened species are given a chance to repopulate without facing the extreme stress that fishing puts on marine populations.

Expansion of Monitoring to Protect Manta Ray Population

Among the unique animals found in the Galapagos, the largest population of Giant Manta Rays (Manta Birostris) in the world are found in Machalilla National Park in Isla de la Plata, nicknamed “Little Galapagos”.  This site is

Giant Manta Ray. Photo courtesy of WildAid.

Giant Manta Ray. Photo courtesy of WildAid.

being used as the pilot location for the new monitoring technology because it hopes to ramp up efforts to protect Mantas as they are becoming increasingly targeted by fisherman. As shark populations decrease, shark finning is becoming more challenging; however, Manta Rays are much easier targets due to their friendly nature.  Within the past ten years, there has been a growing shift from shark finning to manta ray gill harvesting as sharks become more scarce.  Mantas are killed and their dried gills sold on Asian markets as “traditional medicine”, which has led to a significant decline in manta populations throughout the Pacific waters.  Not only are new Manta protections being proposed in the Galapagos, but park rangers are also trying to improve their effectiveness in enforcing such legislation.

Through the use of new monitoring technology illegal fisherman are not only more easily caught but are also sentenced and brought to justice. The Galapagos should serve as a platform and guideline for marine law enforcement and protection in other biodiverse marine areas.  Hopefully the park rangers will continue to have such success and their heroic actions will allow marine populations such as sharks and manta rays to rebound, and the reef ecosystems be restored to their former glory.