The Future Of The Galápagos Islands Is Threatened By Encroaching Chinese Fishing Boats And A Lack Of Tourists

Just outside the Economic Exclusive Zone that surrounds the Galápagos Islands, a flotilla of fishing ships turns off their tracking system and drops anchor.

The zone provides a few hundred miles of respite for native fish and marine life, but outside it, the fish are fair game to commercial interests.

The ships won’t leave until they have collected hundreds of tons of rare fish, squid, sharks, and other sea creatures found no where else on Earth. And once they’ve filled their cargo holds, they set sail back to China to off load the catch for profit.

Fishing vessels operate just outside the Economic Exclusive Zone outside the Galápagos Islands.
Source: YouTube/South China Morning Post
Fishing vessels operate just outside the Economic Exclusive Zone outside the Galápagos Islands.

In the summer of 2020, more than 300 Chinese fishing vessels were spotted fishing outside the Exclusive Zone, each able to carry 1,000 tons or more of catch. Meanwhile, on the islands, COVID-related travel restrictions have reduced tourism opportunities, a major source of income for the country, to virtually zero.

According to the LA Times, the tourism industry once helped deter illegal fishing and poachers. People aboard tour boats and excursions could alert officials if they noticed others taking animals illegally. With no tourists coming to the islands, and no tour boats chartered around them, these indirect protections have vanished.

Sometimes hundreds of fishing vessels surround the Fishing vessels operate just outside the Economic Exclusive Zone outside the Galápagos Islands, hunting rare sharks.
Source: YouTube/South China Morning Post
Sometimes hundreds of fishing vessels surround the Fishing vessels operate just outside the Economic Exclusive Zone outside the Galápagos Islands, hunting rare sharks.

Now, all one sees off the coast of the Galápagos are the fishing boats waiting to scoop up whatever swims outside the Exclusive Zone, and they are growing in number.

“This is an attack on our resources,” said Ángel Yánez Vinueza, mayor of the Santa Cruz canton on the islands. “They are killing the species we have protected and polluting our biota with the plastic waste they drop overboard. They are raping the Galápagos.”

Leaders on mainland South and Central America are calling for greater protection around the Galápagos Islands.
Source: YouTube/South China Morning Post
Leaders on mainland South and Central America are calling for greater protection around the Galápagos Islands.

According to the Galápagos Conservation Trust, the overfishing of sharks causes irreparable damage to marine ecosystems. Yet this is exactly what fishing vessels around the islands are doing.

“Between 2009 and 2017, the Galapagos National Park (GNP) captured 19 illegal fishing boats in the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR),” the GCT reports. “The waters surrounding the Islands are home to one of the highest concentration of sharks in the world and they are usually the main target of illegal boats, harvested solely for their fins to fulfil the high demand for shark-fin soup in Asia. In 2017, the GNP captured an illegal Ecuadorian fishing boat which contained a total of 156 individual sharks, and a Chinese fishing boat which contained over 6,000 individual sharks.”

The Galápagos Islands are home to some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. It’s no wonder Charles Darwin gave it a starring role in his evolutionary biology masterpiece “On the Origin of Species,” using the vibrant communities of flora and fauna that can be found there as study material.

The Ecuadorian Navy monitors activity around the EEZ.
Source: YouTube/South China Morning Post
The Ecuadorian Navy monitors activity around the EEZ.

Today, the various species of the Galápagos are still vibrant, still unique, and still able to evoke awe and wonder from even the most informed individuals. They are also some of the most threatened on earth.

The future of the Galápagos Islands is in grave peril, and it’s going to take some big changes to save it.

While tourism helps bring money to the islands and scares off would-be poachers, it’s also a major source of pollution. Jets and cruise ships create massive amounts of carbon emissions, not to mention the noise they make, pressuring native animals to hide or migrate elsewhere. 

The fishing boats have illegally entered the EEZ at least a few hundred times in 2020.
Source: YouTube/South China Morning Post
The fishing boats have illegally entered the EEZ at least a few hundred times in 2020.

But in the era of COVID, all that has changed. The inlets and bays of the islands are now teeming with wildlife; dolphins, hammerhead sharks, penguins, swimming together in blooms of crimson krill.

“It’s like it was 30 or 40 years ago,” said Mary Crowley, the director of Ocean Voyages Institute, a Sausalito, Calif., environmental organization working to rid the oceans of plastic. She’s been to the Galapagos 23 times since 1972. “That splendor has returned.”

But the splendor is a two-edged sword.

“If there are no tourists, there is no park,” Crowley says. “And if there’s no park, there are no tourists.”

Hammerhead shark migrate through the waters around the Galápagos Islands.
Source: Adobe Stock / Janos
Hammerhead shark migrate through the waters around the Galápagos Islands.

Commercial flights to the island are bringing in fewer and fewer tourists, sometimes less than a dozen a month. Local businesses, fishermen and farmers have no one to sell their food to. Some are even giving their food away.

“We can’t keep things going like this,” said Norman Wray, president of the Government Council of the Galápagos. 

It’s clear there is a balance between tourism and trade that must be reached for the Galápagos and its inhabitants to thrive. The solution may take some time to evolve out of current initiatives, including requesting the Chinese fishing fleet to withdraw, enforcing international agreements that protect migratory species, and extending the Exclusive zone another 150 miles.

Evolution is what brought us the wonder of these islands. It may yet help us protect them.

Learn more in the video below.

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