Illegal fishing continues to pressure Ecuador’s numerous protected areas and fisheries. Funding for conservation efforts on mainland Ecuador is minimal, and due to recent earthquakes, protected area managers have even fewer resources to carry out patrols that protect their marine spaces. WildAid’s work in Ecuador is more important than ever to prevent exploitation of its unique marine life as we celebrate World Oceans Day.
Machalilla National Park along coastal Ecuador is one of the world’s most important sites for manta aggregation as it is home to the largest population of Giant Manta Rays (Manta birostris), estimated at 1,500 individuals. It’s also home to five species of sea turtles, 20 species of whales and dolphins, hammerhead and whale sharks, and countless species of fish and coral reefs.
Listed by the IUCN as “Vulnerable,” the primary threat to manta species is unsustainable fishing. As manta rays have few natural predators, their recent decline is due in large part to direct human predation, driven by the growing demand for their gills or death as bycatch. Compounding matters, mantas are among the slowest to reproduce of all sharks and rays, usually birthing one or two offspring every few years. Their low reproduction rates mean that mantas cannot sustain or survive commercial fishing for long.
In 2004, photographer Bryant Austin floated on the surface of the South Pacific observing a humpback whale and her calf. The five-week old, two-ton calf left his mother and glided within five feet of Austin, close enough that he put down his camera. The calf gracefully swam around him, giving the photographer his first close encounter with a whale.
From his book Beautiful Whale, Austin says, “For the first time, I could see the true colors, fine details, and subtle tones of the humpback whale; all of the elements that make them real. I never would have dared to swim this close to a whale. I wouldn’t even have imagined the prospect of photographing a whale that approached me within five feet on his own terms.”
Thus, this young whale and his mother inspired a seven-year journey to capture life-size images of whales and encourage people to protect them from human threats before they become extinct.
This week, WildAid and CLS coordinated a peer exchange between Galapagos park rangers and members of the Peruvian Coast Guard to share their experiences in using electronic technology for surveillance of marine areas.
In this peer exchange the Peruvian Coastguard will demonstrate how their control center combines data using those same two systems (AIS and VMS) to monitor suspicious activity within their waters. This collaboration may also aid environmental officials from both countries in better protecting shared migratory species, such as giant mantas, sharks, humpback whales, and sea turtles.
In a study published this week, scientists from the National Geographic Society and Charles Darwin Research Station found that Darwin and Wolf in the Galapagos Islands is home to the world's largest shark biomass (the total mass of sharks in a given area) in the world.
This is especially welcome news as sharks continue to be hunted for the shark fin trade — with an estimated 73 million sharks killed annually. According to lead author Pelayo Salinas de Leon, "[T]he islands of Darwin and Wolf are jewels in the crown of the Galapagos,” due to the abundance of these top predators indicating a healthy marine ecosystem.
However, the two-year study funded by Helmsley Charitable Trust also found that reef fish in the area have been severely reduced due to overfishing. To protect its marine life, the Ecuadorian government created a marine sanctuary at Darwin and Wolf in March.
Sea Shepherd and their aging former U.S. Coast Guard cutter, the Farley Mowat, have just completed a four-month mission called Operation Milagro (Miracle) to save the vaquita. They fought a 24/7 battle against gill nets, longlines and the fishermen who deploy them. With a nearly all-volunteer crew of 16, they patrol a vaquita refuge set up by the Mexican government in 2005. Using dragging tools fashioned from the anchors of the illegal nets, they scour the sea day and night pulling up anything they can find, including large gill nets and longlines. WildAid was invited on-board the Farley Mowat to experience and document what Sea Shepherd is doing in the fight to save this unique species.
Scientists in Australia recently announced that more than 90% of coral reefs in the Great Barrier Reef have experienced bleaching this year due to increased oceanic temperatures from climate change. This is the third mass bleaching event on record and possibly the worst yet — affecting one-third of the world’s corals. Other affected areas include Micronesia, as well as the Caribbean and Hawaii, both of which suffered major bleaching throughout their waters last summer.
Coral reefs provide food and shelter for numerous marine species and they support fish stocks that feed more than one billion people around the world. According to The New York Times, they provide jobs for “an estimated 30 million small-scale fishermen and women [who] depend on reefs for their livelihoods.”
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.
Earlier this month, Ecuadorian environmental officials intercepted four Peruvian vessels caught illegally fishing three miles outside the Santa Clara Island marine protected area, located just off the mainland coast.
Declared a formal reserve in 1999, Santa Clara Island is the largest refuge for seabirds in continental Ecuador, home to thousands of pelicans, blue-footed boobies, frigatebirds and an array of marine life.
During a regular patrol, Ecuadorian marine enforcement officials spotted the four Peruvian vessels, which were engaged in long-line fishing. Every year, this unsustainable fishing practice kills hundreds of thousands of endangered sharks, mantas, sea turtles and seabirds — all victims of bycatch. When none of the vessels was unable to produce a valid fishing permit, officials confiscated their catch — including sea bass and chub mackerel, both important exports for Ecuador. The crew likely will face additional fines.
Good news for the Galapagos Islands and for shark conservation! Today, the Ecuadorian government announced the creation of a new 15,000-square-mile marine sanctuary — an expansion of the “no-take” zone of the Galapagos Marine Reserve — around the small islands of Darwin and Wolf.
The new no-take zone, roughly the size of Belgium, will now be protected from fishing and other activities. Small-scale fishing cooperatives who support the new initiative had previously been allowed to operate in the area, but increased pressure from industrial trawlers and illegal shark fin hunters have necessitated increased protections.