Late last week, a commercial fishing vessel and its six fiberglass boats were caught illegally fishing within the Galapagos Marine Reserve with a catch of 160 sharks and other fish.
The Maria Tatiana IV, a fishing vessel from continental Ecuador entered the Galapagos Marine Reserve’s boundaries late Thursday night. Park rangers in the Galapagos National Park control center monitored its trajectory using technology provided by WildAid while patrol vessels sped towards the fishing vessel, having been alerted to this suspicious activity.
After a full day and night chasing the poachers at sea, the Galapagos park rangers and Ecuadorian Navy arrested 21 crew members and seized all seven boats, the long lines and the bounty of illegally caught species. These included 81 sharks—36 silky sharks, 24 blue sharks, 14 pelagic thresher sharks, six bigeye thresher sharks and one great white shark.
The park rangers at Isla de la Plata, a part of Ecuador's Machalilla National Park, now have increased protection for their waters. Nicknamed “Little Galapagos” by the locals, the uninhabited island off the mainland coast is home to five species of sea turtles, 20 species of whales and dolphins, hammerhead and whale sharks, and countless species of fish, corals and mollusks. It's also home to the largest population of Giant Manta Rays (Manta birostris), estimated at 1,500 individuals.
Ecuador’s marine biodiversity is important not only for the health of the ocean, but also for the nation's fishing and tourism industries. In a recent study, we estimated the value of manta tourism at approximately $140 million worldwide.
However, small-scale and commercial fishers frequently engage in illegal fishing that threatens mantas and the health of the marine environment. Trawl and long-line fishing, both popular in Ecuador, affect endangered sharks, sea birds and sea turtles. Unsustainable fishing methods also kill thousands of mantas around the world each year when caught as bycatch.
This month, WildAid and Conservation International achieved an important milestone in real-time monitoring of Ecuador’s marine environment with the installation of a long-range surveillance camera and radio-based monitoring software (AIS) on Isla de la Plata. The long-range camera and AIS surveillance are part of a comprehensive marine protection plan that will help park authorities prevent illegal fishing in the area, helping to protect its abundant marine ecosystems.
Today, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying met with a delegation of elephant conservation activists and a group of schoolchildren who hand-delivered a thank you card, commending Leung for his January 2016 policy address where he called for a phase-out of the local ivory trade, one of the world's largest.
WildAid, WWF-Hong Kong and Hong Kong lawmaker Elizabeth Quat have been leading efforts in the city to combat wildlife trafficking and to oppose the legal ivory trade. Together, we've been working in close cooperation with Hong Kong Under Secretary for the Environment Christine Loh to drive this urgent policy change. Banning the ivory trade will reduce consumer demand for ivory carvings and other products, and will have a positive impact on African elephant populations as poaching rates decline.
Yoyo Wong, a five-year-old kindergarten student from Tuen Mun who was at the informal event, said, “Chief Executive, thank you for pledging to save the elephants in Africa. I want to see elephants when I grow up, so please work faster to ban the ivory trade!”
Twenty-six years ago, the world called time on the international trade in elephant ivory, after it had halved African elephant populations within 15 years. Now governments in the US, China and Hong Kong are finally closing the remaining loophole that allowed domestic trade to continue and facilitated a second ivory crisis that has recently been claiming 33,000 elephants a year.
Hopefully, Japan, Thailand and other significant markets will soon follow suit and the elephants can recover. The positive news is that ivory prices have more than halved in China over the past 18 months, that drop apparently starting before the domestic trade bans were announced. Ivory traders at the Hong Kong Trade Development Council’s jewellery fair this month offered us ivory for US$380 a kilogramme, down to 20 per cent of what it was.
In January, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced in his annual policy address a plan to phase out the local ivory trade. Amazingly, some traders in Hong Kong are calling for compensation for not being able to continue to sell ivory. This would be totally wrong, if not immoral, given the pivotal role of these traders in stockpiling and bending the rules to create the ivory crisis in the first place. It would be like compensating people for knowingly selling stolen goods, because the law had caught up with them.
WildAid and the #JoinTheHerd campaign are honored to be among 32 environmental and conservation organizations who have appealed to Yahoo! Japan, the world’s largest internet ivory seller, and its major shareholder SoftBank, to halt all elephant ivory sales on Yahoo! Japan’s shopping and auction sites. An open letter addressed to SoftBank and Yahoo! Japan executives, Masayoshi Son and Nikesh Arora, urges the companies to act now to protect elephants.